Not quite definitive column on legislating pi

This column could have been a little better written:

Here’s the Wikipedia entry. It contains some references to other articles about this bill:

Here’s the FAQ from sci.math about the bill:

http://www.faqs.org/faqs/sci-math-faq/specialnumbers/lawPieq3/

The bill was not about pi at all. It was about squaring the circle. It doesn’t mention pi at all. If you tried to make the calculations in the bill or the pamphlet it was defending consistent, you could reconstruct that pi must have any of several different values, but there’s no reason to believe that either the author of the bill (Taylor E. Record) or the author of the pamphlet that the bill is defending (Edwin J. Goodwin) knew or cared what pi was. There’s no evidence that anyone in the Indiana legislature knew or cared what pi was. They voted for the bill because it was just a resolution requiring no action by the state. This was a typical case of a legislator putting up for vote a resolution about a subject he didn’t even understand as a favor to a constituent. The rest of the legislature, who knew even less about what the bill was about than he did, voted for it because it was understood that resolutions which require no real action by the state are nothing but a legislator being nice to a constituent who is interested in some oddball subject that didn’t mean anything to anyone in the legislature.

Since you have just decisively skewered the often repeated story about a state trying to legislate the biblical value of pi, I thought I’d add my two cents. Chronicles says the 30 by 10 tub was “completely round,”. but not a perfect circle. It seems the tub could have been distorted enough to make the ratio 3 to 1 and still seem pretty round to the ancient Israelites. Aren’t eggs completely round, i.e., no straight edges?

I think that the way that this story is usually told is a huge mass of irrelevant and mostly incorrect detours from the real event. The bill and the pamphlet it was derived from are about squaring the circle, not about determining the value of pi. Claiming to be able to square the circle was popular among cranks back in 1897. As Cecil points out, it’s like someone claiming to be able to travel faster than light today. Squaring the circle was known to be mathematically impossible by 1897, just as traveling faster than light is known to be impossible today. If someone was truly able to prove that it’s possible to square the circle, it wouldn’t be a major breakthrough in mathematics. Rather, it would prove that mathematics as presently constructed is inconsistent and has to be completely refomulated. Similarly, if someone were able to travel faster than light, it wouldn’t mean that it was a major breakthrough in physics. Rather, it would prove that physics as presently constructed is inconsistent and has to be completely reformulated. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on squaring the circle:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squaring_the_circle

The members of the Indiana legislature weren’t voting on the bill because they remotely cared about squaring the circle or the value of pi or anything in mathematical theory. They probably mostly never really bothered to read the bill. This isn’t about legislators being too stupid to understand what the value of pi is. This is about legislators who feel that if a constituent gives you a campaign contribution or promises to help you gain votes in the next election, you gladly help him by sponsoring a resolution and don’t try to examine his motives too hard. And, furthermore, you don’t mess with other legislator’s resolutions, since you want them not to mess with your resolutions.

There are many ways to interpret the Biblical passage, including that it never claims to be an accurate measurement. In any case, it’s completely irrelevant to the Indiana bill. There’s no reason to think that anybody involved with the bill even thought about the passage

Well, at least we have proof that politicians haven’t changed over the years! Pander to whoever raises enough cain or money.
Now, if a state or even national legislature legislated the velocity of light to be 1 MPH, is light breaking the law?
Yes, that is a trick question on several fronts. :wink:

If Congress today were to vote that the speed of light should be one mile per hour, that would differ in several ways from what happened in Indiana in 1897. First, the bill that the Indiana legislature almost passed didn’t create any law that specified that anything should happen at all. It was just a resolution to praise the inventor (Edwin J. Goodwin) of this supposed method of squaring the circle. Even if it had passed, nothing further would have happened. Passing resolutions to praise or honor or thank someone is a common occurrence in Congress, state legislatures, and probably in city or county councils too. These resolutions accomplish nothing except make the constituent feel good about having a resolution passed about them.

Second, as has been said, it’s quite likely that nobody in the legislature even knew what squaring the circle meant and it’s almost certain that they didn’t know that it had been proved to be mathematically impossible fifteen years before. To them it was just some incomprehensible theory that they weren’t going to waste their time learning about. Although there were a number of mathematical cranks in the nineteenth (and earlier) centuries who claimed to be able to square the circle, it was never a matter of significant public interest.

Third, if Congress today began considering a law about the speed of light, it would be all the news within hours. Today there are enough journalists that they can monitor the content of laws more closely. Back then though, there weren’t enough journalists to read every resolution in every state legislature.

I wrote:

> . . . it would be all the news within hours . . .

I meant:

> . . . it would be all over the news within hours . . .

From my memory of Petr Beckman’s A History of Pi, the bill also claimed to give the state the right/license to use this discovery without paying a fee. I can see a bunch of legislators happily voting to get their state a freebie, without knowing that mathematical proofs and constants were available for free regardless. There is no reason for lawyers to know that.