One Professor's Quest to Save Pi
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even legislators can’t override the laws of science and math.
By Greg Bailey
In the small town of Solitude, Indiana, lived a doctor named Edward J. Goodwin. He had a passion for mathematics and, like many before him, was frustrated by the inability to “square the circle” — to solve the transcendence of pi and find a way, with a compass and straightedge, to build a square with an area equal to that of a circle. But with what he claimed was a direct insight about the universe from God, Goodwin set off to do just that.
For centuries, solving pi was considered an impossibility, and, in 1882, Ferdinand von Lindemann formally proved that was indeed the case. But 12 years later, in 1894, Goodwin was sure he had pulled it off, and he sent his solution to the fledgling journal American Mathematical Monthly, according to Walter Gratzer in Eurekas and Euphorias: The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes.
Apparently forgoing a careful review of the math, the journal published Goodwin’s article in its “Queries and Information” section, according to Pi: A Source Book. This quasi-academic recognition fueled Goodwin’s ambitions, which saw him copyright his solution while devising a scheme to make money by collecting royalties. He also launched an aggressive letter-writing campaign to leading scientists and public institutions, including one to his state representative Taylor I. Record, a farmer and lumber dealer serving his first, and only, term. Goodwin approached Record and asked whether he would sponsor a bill, offering free use of his solution to the state of Indiana in exchange for official recognition of his idea.
Record admitted that he had no idea what the proposed law was about, but he wanted to help his constituent. So Goodwin wrote up the bill — notably without using the name “pi” — with the ratio of the diameter and circumference as being four-fifths to four, or 3.2. The bill added insult to injury by stating that the real value of pi “should be discarded as wholly wanting and misleading in its practical applications.”
The Senate might as well try to legislate water to run uphill as to establish mathematical truth by law.
Sen. Orrin Hubbell
Record introduced House Bill 246 at the start of the 1897 session and suggested it be assigned to the finance committee. There was another call to give it to the Committee on Canals, aka the Committee on Swamp Lands, but it ended up being assigned to the education committee. The Indiana superintendent of public instruction was so impressed that he told the Indianapolis Sentinel that Goodwin had succeeded in meeting the ancient challenge of squaring the circle. The bill, needless to say, was passed without opposition, 67-0, to the full House on February 5 of that year — and only one newspaper, a German-language daily in Indianapolis, called out the lawmakers for trying to undermine pi.
But the German-speaking editors were about to be helped by Clarence Abiathar Waldo, head of mathematics at Purdue University. The educator, with his wire-frame glasses, mustache and stiffly starched collar, was in town to lobby for funding for the Indiana Academy of Science. He was more than a little perplexed to learn about Goodwin’s bill when a copy of it was handed to him by a state representative, along with an offer to introduce him to the good doctor himself.
Waldo declined the offer, noting that he’d already met enough crazy people in his life, according to Gratzer. And to set the record straight, he decided to coach the state senators on the foolishness of the bill. Waldo’s campaign picked up steam, and English-speaking newspapers around the country finally circled in on the story, with some publicly mocking Indiana’s legislators.
On February 11, the bill shifted to the Senate Committee on Temperance — perhaps as a joke — and the committee immediately moved it on to the full Senate, where the proposed legislation was roundly lampooned. State Sen. Orrin Hubbell denounced the bill as a waste of time. “The Senate might as well try to legislate water to run uphill as to establish mathematical truth by law,” he said, and with his motion, the bill was tabled and died.
Steve Cohen, an associate professor of mathematics at Roosevelt University, says the drive to “square the circle” has perplexed mathematicians for centuries. Archimedes was the first to accurately compute estimations based on inscribing and circumscribing many-sided polygons within and around a circle, Cohen explains, and math enthusiasts have been following in his footsteps ever since.
Defeated, Goodwin returned to Solitude, where for his remaining years he continued fighting for his ideas, which were widely denounced … for not adding up.
- Greg BaileyContact Greg Bailey