Newspaper article Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current)

From the Editor

Newspaper article Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current)

From the Editor

Article excerpt

Math was never my strongest subject in school, which is why I work at a newspaper and not for NASA. But math can be pretty confusing to almost all of us, something that was proven 116 years ago this week. If you're never heard of Indiana House Bill 246 from 1897, you're not alone. But it is infamous among mathematicians as the "Indiana Pi Bill." And it sought to establish, by state legislation, the value of pi. And of course, it was completely wrong.

For those of us who aren't exactly sure what pi is, here is a short lesson. Pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. It is known as a transcendental number, meaning it is not the root of any nonzero polynomial having rational coefficients. When expressed as a decimal representation, it never settles into a permanent repeating pattern.

But frankly, understanding any of that is a bonus. What you need to know is this: pi is used to determine the area of a circle, but it has to be done by approximation because there is no exact number. It is the closest we can come to "squaring the circle," a challenge which has thwarted mathematicians for centuries.

Which brings us back to 1897. It had only been 15 years since a Swiss scientist had finally proven pi to be an irrational number, meaning it was impossible to square the circle. But Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin thought he knew better. And he wanted his discovery made into law.

Dr. Goodwin lived in the Posey County town of Solitude. He was a physician by trade, but took up mathematics as a hobby. He was certain he'd found the value of pi should be the ratio of 4 to 5/ 4, or 3.2. That had the advantage of being easy to remember, but the disadvantage of being wrong.

The bill itself, introduced by Posey County State Rep. Taylor Record, is almost impossible to read. But the best part is when it refers to the accepted value of pi as "wholly wanting and misleading in its practical applications." And every single member of the House bought it. …

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