Rights are definitely not Pi…

@crit_gen looks back at a historical legislative error and draws parallels with current GRA reform in Scotland and the unthinking politicians nodding through a flawed law

In 1897, House Bill No 246 was introduced to the Indiana State legislator with 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”

The Bill was likely written by amateur mathematician Edward J Goodwin who believed he had discovered a way to square the circle, despite that being proved impossible in 1882 by the publication of the Lindemann-Weierstrass theorum.

In his desperation to prove his theory, Goodwin made a number of imprecise calculations and approximated pi at 3.2, a gross overestimate of its value.

The Bill came along with the reassuring certification that Goodwin’s work had been published in American Mathematical Monthly, although caveated by the statement “published at the request of the author”.

Bill No 246 offered the state the opportunity, but not the requirement, to use Goodwin’s mathematical findings. After languishing in a number of committees, the Bill finally made it to the floor and was passed unanimously by the house of representatives, 67-0.

Clueless in colluding

The Illinois Pi Bill presents an amusing story about the uneasy relationship between politics and science. We can now laugh at the arrogance of the instigator and the cluelessness of the political representatives who colluded.

They’re all now long dead, but the story is still instructive of how the vanity of individuals and politicians can overtake reason and sense.

Let’s move swiftly on to the Scottish Parliament.

If this Bill had been proposed today, it would not have been put forward by an individual but more likely a lobbying group named Squaring the Circle who would describe their work as “seeking to ensure diversity in mathematical frameworks”.

The Bill would be championing the rights of arithmetic dysphorics who are distressed by multiplication using more than one decimal place.

Inserting this proof into textbooks would be hailed as ensuring all types of mathematics are taught to school children, even if they are wrong – because the lived experience of one mathematician is vital.

Maggie Chapman MSP would tell us this tiny administrative change to educational material would have no impact on wider society. It would only be relevant to the minority of circle-squarers in the population and would allow them to express their reality.

At the committee stage, Karen Adams MSP would ask whether the 1882 Lindemann-Weierstrass theorem, proving pi is a transcendental number, was anecdotal and suggest that calling a circle a circle was bigotry.

The committee would agree there was no evidence that using 3.2 for the value of pi was going to cause problems. After all, in day-to- day life, very few people actually use pi, and it is only in the arena of stuffy outdated engineering that the need for a more accurate number is applicable.

A simple failure to comply

The debate would spill out of the committee room and into the press. Nicola Sturgeon would tell us pi wasn’t always a transcendental number; for a tiny minority, pi was 3.2. That objections from engineers, school teachers and mathematicians were not valid.

She would tell us that the problem wasn’t that the theory was wrong but that circles just refused to comply.

Columnists at The National would confidently tell the public the Romans estimated pi at 3 1/8 while running an empire and successfully constructing the Colosseum (which readers may wish to note is an oval)


The Colosseum: it identifies as round….

Indeed they would artfully suggest those objecting to the Bill were perhaps motivated by hatred rather than principle. Bigotry towards those who do not like more than one decimal place would be raged against and hands wrung at those impeding progress with their old-fashioned ideas of proofs and accuracy.

In 1897, saviour came in the form of a Purdue University math professor called Clarence Abiathar Waldo, who had stopped by the capital to request funding for the Indiana Academy of Sciences.

“My state did not further this monstrosity, and it was probably the Indiana Academy of Science alone which prevented it,” Waldo later wrote.

“That one act of protection was worth more to Indiana, jealous of her fair fame as she is, than all she ever contributed or can contribute to the publication of the proceedings of her Academy of Science.”

Who will save Scotland?

So who will be Scotland’s Waldo?

Well, right now it looks like it’s Liz Truss. But are we really going to give that esteemed role to her?

Allowing someone who may turn out to be the worst prime minister in recent history to take the rational path of enlightenment and science and making the majority of Scottish Parliamentarians look like idiot. A win that will cost her nothing and even win plaudits from her base.

Is this what we have been reduced to by the atrocious group-think that’s infected civic Scotland? Let’s hope not.


If you enjoyed this, you can read more of the same by following her on Twitter.

I’ve been reading ‘Rights are definitely not Pii…’ on WomenWon’tWheesht and it was so good I think you should read it too 🙂