Thursday, March 14, 2013

The (Legislative) Life of Pi

March 14 is known in some circles as "Pi Day," for the correspondence of 3/14 to the first three digits of the mathematical constant π. The number π represents the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. It is most commonly rounded to 3.14159, although its decimal string is technically infinite. (The Pi Day website has the first million calculated.)

Most math within a legislature involves budget issues, but one day in 1897 the value of π came up for debate by Indiana lawmakers. Indiana House Bill 246 (1897) was introduced on January 18 by Rep. Taylor I. Record. The bill would have exempted Indiana schools from paying royalties on the use of a copyrighted "new mathematical truth" that, in part, recalculated the value of π as 3.2. The bill passed the state House unanimously, but was postponed indefinitely in the Senate once cooler heads prevailed. As noted in More Amazing Tales from Indiana (2003), the recalculated value would drastically skew any formulae which rely on precise values of π (for example, the return trajectory of a space shuttle would miss Earth entirely under the recalculated value).

To read more about this odd intersection between the laws of mathematics and man, visit Purdue University's "Indiana Pi Bill" website for the text of the bill, a history of the mathematician who recalculated π, and commentary from various news sources. A 1977 article on the subject by Valparaiso mathematics professor Arthur E. Hallerberg is also accessible to Duke University community members via the JSTOR database. Still more recountings of the tale can be found in Legislating Pi: Indiana's Squared Circle, which was reprinted in Is Mathematics Inevitable?: A Miscellany (2008), available at Perkins/Bostock library; and Pi: A Sourcebook (1997), available through the Triangle Research Libraries Network.

A century after the Indiana bill died in the state Senate, an Internet hoax claimed that the Alabama legislature had similarly attempted to redefine the value of π (this time to a nice, round, and allegedly "more Biblical" 3); this urban legend was debunked at In fact, no legislature appears to have considered π much until the U.S. Congress recognized Pi Day in 2009 with H. Res. 224, which encouraged American schools to observe the holiday by engaging students in mathematical study. Showing some academic prowess of its own, the 2009 House also carefully noted in its resolution that π is an "irrational number, which will continue infinitely without repeating"…and one that, presumably, will never be "rounded" by a legislature again.