The Washington Post

Happy Pi Day!

(The elusive Pi.)

A new value of Pi to assign

I would fix it at three

For ‘tis simpler, you see

Than 3 point 14159.

-Professor Harvey L. Carter

Today is Pi Day — 3/14! Math geeks of the world, rejoice! (Although it’s not nearly as exciting as its 2015 counterpart, which comes even closer to the digits of the famous constant.) Without Pi, Google Circles would just be Google Areas We Have No Idea How To Calculate.

The limerick seems apt for the occasion — the rumor has arisen in various times and various eras that state legislatures passed laws legislating the value of Pi as 3 to make it easier for legislators’ daughters in math class, but this has turned out to be something of an urban legend. Alabama, for instance, did not.

But the limerick is reminiscent of an incident in the Indiana legislature in 1897, considering a bill which has become known as the “Pi Law.” A local physician, Edward or Edwin Goodwin, depending upon your source, had come up with a novel method for squaring the circle — that is, finding a square with the same area as a given circle. This method was, indeed, novel. So novel, in fact, that it required legislation to be deemed true. House Bill 246 was subtitled: “A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature of 1897.”

The new mathematical truth included two possible values for Pi and noted that, as “the rule in present use fails to work both ways mathematically, it should be discarded as wholly wanting and misleading in its practical applications.” Fortunately, a math professor happened to be present in the session and was able to “coach” the legislators, as he put it, preventing their dignifying this absurd mathematical proposition by including it in textbooks.

So on Pi day, it’s worth remembering this spectacularly failed effort of a legislature to introduce a new mathematical truth. It seems you can’t legislate fact, after all, the theories of Dr. Goodwin aside.

Meanwhile, Pi has gone on for centuries and not yet been discovered to repeat itself, which is more than I can say for a lot of people.

Happy Pi Day!

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".

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