Indiana Legislators, Waldo, and Pi

I hope everyone enjoyed their Pi Day (3/14)! I know, I’m two days late, but for good reason—I spent the last two days wondering what to do to honor pi day, and researching said topic (and doing my usual grad school duties). There’s a lot of angles I could take on pi—the controversies around pi’s usage, how pi pops up all over physics, even when circles aren’t necessarily involved, the notion that the secrets of the Universe is encoded in its digits—but I’m going to focus on a popular legend. I’m sure you, like me, have heard the story that lawmakers once tried to legally change the value of pi to 3. Likely under the guise that the Bible sets the value of pi to 3, since King Solomon supposedly built a round bathtub with a circumference of 30 cubits and a diameter of 10 cubits (although a Jewish Rabbi named Nehemiah around 150 C.E. tried to explain this discrepancy through the bathtub’s thickness…smart man). Well, this rumor isn’t true…but it’s got a real story that’s way better.

Let me take you back to the late 1800’s. In a small town called Solitude, Indiana (best wikipedia page ever…yeah, you can see where this story is going) lived a physician named Dr. Goodwin. Different sources claim his first name was Edward, others Edwin…the point is that he was an amateur mathematician working on the problem of trying to create a square whose area is exactly that of a circle. In principle this is done with just a compass and straight edge, and would make a difficult task (finding a circle’s area) much easier (area of a square). There was a big problem though…a mathematician named Ferdinand von Lindemann had already proven it was mathematically impossible to do. The reason is because pi is not just some ordinary irrational number—it’s a transcendental number—it’s impossible to calculate via a simple algebraic equation. You just can’t make a square whose sides are exactly the square root of pi in length. But darn it, Dr. Goodwin was determined, and sure enough he did it in 1894 (but not really)! It even got published in American Mathematical Monthly! Who knew mathematical papers existed, or that they were that desperate for material?

Dr. Goodwin was a real character. His books are self-published, and he even stated that God told him the value of pi in 1888 (I guess God had done some more math in between the Bible’s publishing and then). Not only did he get a proof of an impossibility published, he supposedly copyrighted it! Yeah, you read that correctly. Never mind that knowledge isn’t copyrightable (despite academic publishing, we don’t get royalties) but by Jove he did it anyway. His writings were gibberish, and anyone who claims to know how to follow his writings will tell you that you can back out his values for pi. That’s right, values. Each of his writings back out a different value of pi, including 4, 3.2325, 3.2, and even 9.2.

Well, Dr. Goodwin had a big problem. He was afraid that Indiana’s education system could not afford to pay royalties to teach his mathematical truth to the children. His beautiful discovery might be lost to ignorance—so he proposed a solution to Indiana representative Taylor I. Record: if Indiana passed a law stating this as mathematical truth, the school system would not have to pay royalties! Sound like a good plan?

Representative Record thought so. So he brought it to the floor of the Indiana legislature in 1897 (House Bill 246). Most sources I read just talked about the end result of the bill, but if you track it’s progress, you get a fascinating look into the legislative process of the Hoosier state. The bill was first forwarded to the House Committee on Canals. Yeah. They then forwarded it to the Committee on Education, a slightly better choice (though the best would be the Committee on Crap, if that even exists). Well, the Education Committee brought it to the full House floor, and recommended it pass. And it did, unanimously, 67 to 0! Yep, nobody thought this bill was a problem.

While this is going on, the papers begin to take notice. One paper, written in complete German (Der Tagliche Telegraph) chronicled how ridiculous this was, and mentioned von Lindemann’s proof…but since it was in German, nobody noticed. Instead, people read the English papers…which all supported the bill! We should be embarrassed. By the time it passed in the House, the rest of the country took notice, and Indiana became the laughing stock of the nation (that’s right, Dan Quayle was not the first to see this happen).

Now the bill had to pass the Indiana Senate. But not so fast! Enter Dr. Clarence Abiathar Waldo. Dr. Waldo was serving as the president of the Indiana Academy of Science and was the head professor of mathematics at Purdue University, and decided to take a stand against the pi bill. Yeah, Dr. Waldo saving Indiana from further embarrassment…you can’t make this stuff up!

At this point in the story, the bill had been passed to the Senate Committee on Temperance. The chairman of this committee, Senator Harry S. New, recommended the bill pass. Dr. Waldo coached a few of the Senators to speak out against the bill and recommend it die there and then. Some sources I read seem to think that it was thanks to Dr. Waldo that this bill was thrown out, others say it was decided that the Senators, all of whom admitted to not having math knowledge, thought it ridiculous to pass math legislation and threw it out on those grounds. But the point is, the bill, having now made Indiana look like the dumbest state ever, had finally found its resting place in the cemetery of defeated bills.

Our story ends here…just 5 years after his humiliating defeat, Dr. Goodwin died. History becomes legend, and now we hear ripples of this historical event in the form of pi legislation rumors. I highly recommend you guys research this story, as there are some hilarious quotes from the various senators, key players, newspapers, etc. I’ll end this belated-pi-day entry with the New Harmony, Indiana obituary for Dr. Goodwin:

“He felt that he had a great invention and wished the world to have the benefit of it. In years to come Dr. Goodwin’s plan for measuring the heavens may receive the approbation which was untiringly sought by its originator. As years went on and he saw the child of his genius still unreceived by the scientific world, he became broken with disappointment, although he never lost hope and trusted that before his end came he would see the world awakened to the greatness of his plan and taste for a moment the sweetness of success. He was doomed to disappointment, and in the peaceful confines of village life the tragedy of a fruitless ambition was enacted.”

RIP Dr. Goodwin and House Bill 246

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