Easy as pi? Legislators need to focus on real issues

Whenever I see an article or a headline about an embarrassing or silly story on the national news, I think to myself, “Please don’t be about Indiana, please don’t be about Indiana!” We already have enough challenges.

Whether it is dramatic weather, humongous potholes or more serious issues such as education or economic problems, Indiana does not also need to be a laughing stock. I would prefer to stay under the radar.

I am sure you celebrated Pi Day on March 14 by eating a slice of pie and rejoicing in the mathematical constant (approximately 3.14) used to determine the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter. This punny holiday reminds me of when Indiana did indeed risk becoming a joke.

In 1897, Indiana State Representative Taylor I. Record introduced a bill in the Indiana Legislature to define pi as 3.2. The bill was based on the flawed research of Indiana doctor Edwin J. Goodwin, who believed that he had solved the mathematical dilemma of squaring a circle.

I am not going to pretend that I understand all of the mathematical principles behind determining the value of pi. You would have to ask one of the math professors at Ivy Tech about that. All I know is that about 2,200 years ago, the Greek mathematician Archimedes determined how to calculate pi. Since then, that number seems to be working. But that did not stop Indiana lawmakers.

Apparently, the fact that pi is an irrational number, meaning a number where the decimal places go on indefinitely without repeating, was just too irritating for the Indiana Legislature. Maybe lobbyists hired by teenagers studying geometry had influenced the Legislature.

While some legislators hoped to send the pi bill to its death in the Committee on Swamplands, the bill found its way to the Committee on Education. It passed through committee and then through the Indiana House without any votes against it. Thankfully, Clarence Abiathar Waldo, a Purdue math professor with an awesome name, arrived just in time to save the day (Go Boilers!). Waldo convinced the Indiana Senate that trying to legislate a mathematics principle was pure folly. Meanwhile, newspapers had started making fun of the Indiana Pi Bill. The Indiana Senate wisely declined to move the bill forward.

I could not imagine the disasters that changing the value of pi might have caused. I doubt that any structure built after that time would be safe. Would the state have installed signs on the border proclaiming that Indiana has a different value for pi than the rest of the planet? Maybe Indiana would have started just making up other stuff, too.

Whether good or bad, Indiana often does things its own way. Does anyone want to discuss time zones and daylight saving time? Indiana has certainly passed its fair share of frivolous and ridiculous legislation.

While we are in the middle of the Indiana legislative session, I think there are some important lessons to learn from the infamous Pi Bill. Our legislators, whether in Indianapolis or Washington, need to focus on real issues. That includes education, the opioid epidemic and the environment. We also need to fix our crumbling infrastructure and work toward sustainable economic prosperity. The Pi Bill incident is a reminder that our elected leaders need to pay attention to facts. They cannot ignore math, science or history, no matter how inconvenient.

Aaron Miller is one of The Republic’s community columnists and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. He has a doctorate in history and is an associate professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus. Send comments to [email protected].