Don Sherfick

Indiana Legislative Pi(e) Pronouncements

Filed By Don Sherfick | January 27, 2009 11:33 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Politics

The Indiana General Assembly is back in session, wrangling with budgetary considerations against continuing bad economic news. Still, as always, whether there is really time or not, a number of our Hoosier lawmakers can't resist tossing a variety of far less weighty pieces of proposed legislation in the hopper. Earlier I've expressed my opinion concerning one of them: A rewrite of the so-called "Marriage Protection Amendment", formerly SJR7, an unnecessary and ill-contrived bit of constitutional discrimination that makes vague terms in the last one seem like exact mathematical formulas.

Such elusive exactitude, coupled with the whole notion of what is or isn't frivolous legislative exercise, brings to mind a couple of other Hoosier legislative endeavors. The first, of which fellow contributor Doug Meagher reminded me in a recent comment to my amendment post, was about an 1897 attempt to write into law an exact definition of pi. The second, much more recently has to do with attempting to exactly define something else round: the official state pie. If you're not in a hurry and could use a trivia fix this cold Hoosier day, follow me past the jump:

For those of you who were asleep, text messaging or otherwise not paying any attention to what was going on in front of your grade/high school mathematics class, the Greek letter PI stands for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. (OK, OK, I know: the circumference is the curvy line that comes back to itself if you're sober and the diameter is the "straight across" shortcut if you aren't sober but are in a hurry. Jeeez...don't you younger folks know ANYTHING?)

Seems like that ratio, simply dividing the distance around the circle by the distance across it, ought to be an easy calculation. Just take a tape measure that bends, do the math, and get back to your texting. It turns out, though, that for centuries a lot of smart mathematicians (not to mention crossword puzzle nuts) have agonized over this. Before the invention of the printing press there wasn't such a thing as "Squaring The Circle For Dummies".

As this Wikipedia article outlines, this dilemma found itself in the halls of the Indiana Statehouse in 1897 when with the Indiana General Assembly itself when a Hoosier by the name of Edwin J. Goodwin announced that he had come up with a solution. Goodwin is described as an amateur mathematician and physician. It also appears that he was considered a bit of a crank. I haven't run across what kind of medicine he practiced, but hopefully he was more of a professional in that regard.

Anyway, he apparently persuaded a member of the Hoosier House of Representatives to introduce his bill, under the 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." Try to put that one a text message before the class bell rings. The body of the bill itself is also a linguistic trip and can be found here.

The bill made it out of committee and was unanimously passed by the full House. It might have made it through the Senate, too, had it not been for the appearance of Purdue University Professor C.A. Waldo, who was reportedly asked if he wanted to be introduced to the genius who wrote it. He declined, saying that he already knew as many crazy people as he cared to. It then died in the Senate. I'll resist the strong temptation to draw any parallels to the fate of last year's "Marriage Protection Amendment".

I had long heard this general story, but with a somewhat different twist: Supposedly the Indiana General Assembly wanted to make it easy for farmers to calculate PI, and sought to do so by just setting it as exactly 3.0 instead of the 3.15159 plus an endless series of digits that computers runing the Hoosier Lottery could generate if they just had enough funding. I'd never been able to figure out why nineteenth century farmers were planting circular fields unless they knew something about crop circles. But then again Mel Gibson hadn't yet appeared in "Signs".

Actually the 1897 bill would have led to a PI value of 3.2, although the literature says Goodwin was more interested in "squaring the circle" than PI itself. But then we're all aware of lawmakers who try to put square pegs into round holes, and conversely, don't we?

The 3.0 version of the story seems to have become sort of an urban myth beyond Indiana, for example explains and debunks this one related to the Alabama legislature.

Fast forward to the current legislative session, where State Representative Allen Paul has introduced a resolution proclaiming that "sweet is the new round" in proclaiming the official state pie to be none other than the Sugar Cream variety. I haven't seen anything mandating that it has to be circular. I would doubt seriously that the caloric content would be mathematically limited.....not in Indiana anyway.

I suppose that's an acceptably mild diversion from having to balance the Indiana budget. All I'm hoping is that our lawmakers will resist the temptation to take these kinds of definitional concepts up one level and insert them into the Indiana Constitution. Whether or not it should cap the property tax at a particular fraction has its upsides and downsides, but hopefully if such a number goes into our state constitution, our lawmakers won't let Goodwin's ghost talk them into having a ton of numbers after the decimal point.

And although who could dare deny that sugar cream pie reflects a certain type of Hoosier values, we all know what happens when people try to impose them upon the rest of us in the constitution. But there I go again trailing off onto "Son of SJR7". Think I'll have some dessert. Any suggestions? But no more wedge issues today, please.

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