There seems to be a worrying trend in politics today where some politicians seem to think they can define the world around them. From the decades-long Russian misinformation campaign to Tennessee banning drag shows and Texas accidentally making all marriages void, it seems that lawmakers feels that reality can be what they want, they simply have to define it themselves.
This is obviously doomed to failure in the long run, and arguably these politicians know this: precious few who legislate in this way actually hold these views privately. But, if it gets votes and if it makes them rich, they will happily sell out their conscience and the people they are supposed to serve, all while hiding behind some phony stance. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon.
In 1897, in the state of Indiana, such an event occurred. The legislation passed in that session is seen as laughable today, but at the time they were being serious. This was Indiana’s attempt to “square the circle” where the legislators decided to ignore the fundamental mathematical laws of the universe, redefining them locally with the wave of a hand.
Why did Indiana get pi wrong?
The Value of Pi
Pi is one of the most important numbers in mathematics, which makes it one of the most important numbers in everything from physics to engineering to biology. Everything around you today, from the houses you live in to the messages you receive on your smartphone, depends on getting pi right.
Pi is also a very well understood number, and any schoolchild will tell you it is equal to 3.1415927… but already you can see the problem. Pi is what is known as an “irrational number”, which in its most simple definition is a number which cannot be expressed as a decimal or as a fraction. The only way to write down pi is to keep adding numbers to the end of your decimal, getting closer and closer but ultimately never writing out the whole thing.
This makes it awkward to work with, but the problems are not insurmountable. The Indiana lawmakers of the 1897 House of Representatives thought otherwise, however.
The whole thing started with an ancient Greek problem known as “squaring the circle” which is a simple task: can you, armed only with a straight edge and a pair of compasses, draw a circle and then progress using logical steps to draw a square which has the same area?
It seems a simple task but remember the edge you are using has no measurements on it. The task requires you to create a simple, logical pathway from any given circle to construct a square without measuring, because measuring can introduce practical errors into the process.
In 1882 after millennia of attempts this was finally proven to be impossible, but Indiana was having none of that. In 1897, emboldened by the claims of a 73-year-old doctor who thought he could square the circle after all, Indiana decided to settle the matter once and for all by legislating on it. The proof would be made legal, and because it was legal it would become true.
The Indiana legislature were confused as to why this bill was being set before them, some wondering if it was linked to financing or education. However it was duly passed, without a single dissenting vote.
The problem was that the new proof for squaring the circle was itself false, and the doctor had got his sums very wrong. Other problems came out of the bill as the proof fell apart, including specific mathematics in the proof which resulted in pi being equal to 2.
It seems that the Indiana House of Representatives were happy to ignore established mathematical fact, happy instead to legislate otherwise and make the universe whatever they wanted. Hilariously, the math was so incoherent that it also implied other values of pi, being unable to decide whether it was 2, 3, or 3.2.
Thankfully this nonsense was stopped when the bill reached the Indiana Senate. Lawmakers there laughed at what was brought before them, and the bill was indefinitely postponed.
Top Image: Pi has been calculated to millions of digits, but the Indiana House of Representatives thought you only needed one. Source: Catalina Alaya Molena / CC BY-SA 2.0.
By Joseph Green