Today’s unusual wikipedia article is a complex tale – and as a commited arithmophobe, this is all greek to me…
The Indiana Pi Bill is the popular name for bill #246 of the 1897 sitting of the Indiana General Assembly, one of the most famous attempts to establish mathematical truth by legislative fiat. Despite that name, the main result claimed by the bill is a method to square the circle, rather than to establish a certain value for the mathematical constant π (pi), the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. However, the bill does contain text that appears to dictate various incorrect values of π, such as 3.2 (π = 3.14159265…).
The bill never became law, due to the intervention of a mathematics professor who happened to be present in the legislature.
The impossibility of squaring the circle using only compass and straightedge, suspected since ancient times, was rigorously proven in 1882 by Ferdinand von Lindemann. Better approximations of π than those inferred from the bill have been known since ancient times.
In 1894, Indiana physician and amateur mathematician Edwin J. Goodwin (ca. 1825–1902) believed that he had discovered a correct way of squaring the circle. He proposed a bill to Indiana Representative Taylor I. Record, which Record introduced in the House under the long title “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 text of the bill consists of a series of mathematical claims, followed by a recitation of Goodwin’s previous accomplishments:
“… his solutions of the trisection of the angle, doubling the cube and quadrature of the circle having been already accepted as contributions to science by the American Mathematical Monthly … And be it remembered that these noted problems had been long since given up by scientific bodies as unsolvable mysteries and above man’s ability to comprehend.”
Upon its introduction in the Indiana House of Representatives, the bill’s language and topic occasioned confusion among the membership; a member from Bloomington proposed that it be referred to the Finance Committee, but the Speaker accepted another member’s recommendation to refer the bill to the Committee on Swamplands, where the bill could “find a deserved grave”. It was transferred to the Committee on Education, which reported favorably; following a motion to suspend the rules, the bill passed on February 6, without a dissenting vote. The news of the bill occasioned an alarmed response from Der Tägliche Telegraph, a German-language newspaper in Indianapolis, which viewed the event with significantly less favor than its English-speaking competitors. As this debate concluded, Purdue University Professor C. A. Waldo arrived in Indianapolis to secure the annual appropriation for the Indiana Academy of Science. An assemblyman handed him the bill, offering to introduce him to the genius who wrote it. He declined, saying that he already met as many crazy people as he cared to.
Although the bill has become known as the “pi bill”, its text does not mention the name “pi” at all, and Goodwin appears to have thought of the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle as distinctly secondary to his main aim of squaring the circle.
It is unknown what made Goodwin believe that his rule could be correct. In general, figures with identical perimeters do not have identical area; the typical demonstration of this fact is to compare a long thin shape with small enclosed area (approaching zero as the width decreases) to one of the same perimeter that is approximately as tall as it is wide, obviously of much greater area.
The day after New Zealand legalised same-sex marriage, a Catholic priest appeared on a television news show and drew parallels between legalising same-sex marriage and the 1897 attempt to regulate pi, saying pi – and heterosexual marriage – were both “pre-existing” realities that couldn’t be changed.