Pi Was Once Almost Legally Changed to 3.2

The value of pi is, always has been, and always will be 3.141592653... ad infinitum. But that didn't stop a man named Edward Goodwin from trying to legally redefine it as 3.2.

Easy as Pi

Edward Goodwin was either an extremely successful prankster, or an amateur mathematician who truly believed he had made a breakthrough. Either way, the wacky tale is true: In 1897, Goodwin believed he had found a new and correct value of pi, and tried to put this finding into law in Indiana.

Specifically, Goodwin believed he had successfully "squared the circle" — a conundrum that had plagued mathematicians all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Squaring the circle means to draw a square with the same area as a circle. But because the area of a circle contains the irrational number pi, modern mathematicians have recognized that it can't be done: the length of the sides of the square would end up being some infinite decimal just like pi, and that's impossible. That is, it's impossible if you define pi as an irrational number. Goodwin believed it was possible because pi wasn't 3.14159 ... it was 3.2.

Goodwin laid out the issues with pi in his proposed law, House Bill 246:

"The diameter employed as the linear unit according to the present rule in computing the circle's area is entirely wrong ... the rule in present use fails to work both ways mathematically, it should be discarded as wholly wanting and misleading in its practical applications."

The bill is long and full of jargon, but according to Professor C.A. Waldo, a respected mathematician at the time, it gave multiple numbers for the "true" value of pi. "At the outset, it gave 4 as the true value ... while towards the end it gave 3.2 ..."

The bill never became law, due to the intervention of Professor C. A. Waldo of Purdue University, who happened to be present in the legislature on the day it went up for a vote.

It's Totally Irrational

Believe it or not, the bill got surprisingly far. The first committee it was sent to didn't know what to do with it, so they sent it to the Committee on Education. That committee inexplicably recommended it in February of 1897, and it went to the House for a vote. After being read on the House floor three times, it somehow passed with no resistance.

However, the bill was stopped when it reached the Senate — not because they recognized it was wrong, but because they recognized that you can't legislate mathematical laws. The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter will always be pi and pi will always be 3.14159 ... well, you get the picture.

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Written by Ashley Hamer March 8, 2018