Let ε < 0.

02.2.09

Slice of pi

Filed under: Science humor, Urban legends — Travis @

This was originally posted to the newsgroup talk.origins on April Fool’s Day 1998, as well as sent to a list of New Mexican scientists and citizens interested in evolution, and printed in the April issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter NMSR Reports. Its talk.origins poster followed up a day later with a full confession and explanation of the prank, but it is commonly perported on the world wide web as true.

Bill seeks to change value of π

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. NASA engineers and mathematicians in this high-tech city are stunned and infuriated after the Alabama state legistature narrowly passed a law yesterday redefining π (pi), a mathematical constant used in the aerospace industry. The bill to change the value of π to exactly 3 was introduced without fanfare by Leonard Lee Lawson (R, Crossville), and rapidly gained support after a letter-writing campaign by members of the Solomon Society, a traditional values group. Governor Guy Hunt says he will sign it into law on Wednesday.

The law took the state’s engineering community by surprise. “It would have been nice if they had consulted with someone who actually uses π,” said Marshall Bergman, a manager at the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. According to Bergman, π is a Greek letter that signifies the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is often used by engineers to calculate missile trajectories.

Prof. Kim Johanson, a mathematician from University of Alabama, said that π is a universal constant, and cannot arbitrarily be changed by lawmakers. Johanson explained that π is an irrational number, which means that it has an infinite number of digits after the decimal point and can never be known exactly. Nevertheless, she said, π is precisly defined by mathematics to be “3.14159, plus as many more digits as you have time to calculate”.

“I think that it is the mathematicians that are being irrational, and it is time for them to admit it,” said Lawson. “The Bible very clearly says in I Kings 7:23 that the alter font of Solomon’s Temple was ten cubits across and thirty cubits in diameter, and that it was round in compass.”

Lawson called into question the usefulness of any number that cannot be calculated exactly, and suggested that never knowing the exact answer could harm students’ self-esteem. “We need to return to some absolutes in our society,” he said, “the Bible does not say that the font was thirty-something cubits. Plain reading says thirty cubits. Period.”

Science supports Lawson, explains Russell Humbleys, a propulsion technician at the Marshall Spaceflight Center who testified in support of the bill before the legislature in Mongtomery on Monday. “π is merely an artifact of Euclidean geometry.” Humbleys is working on a theory which he says will prove that π is determined by the geometry of three-dimensional space, which is assumed by physicists to be “isotropic”, or the same in all directions.

“There are other geometries, and π is different in every one of them,” says Humbleys. Scientists have arbitrarily assumed that space is Euclidean, he says. He points out that a circle drawn on a spherical surface has a different value for the ratio of circumfence to diameter. “Anyone with a compass, flexible ruler, and globe can see for themselves,” suggests Humbleys, “it’s not exactly rocket science.”

Roger Learned, a Solomon Society member who was in Montgomery to support the bill, agrees. He said that π is nothing more than an assumption by the mathematicians and engineers who were there to argue against the bill. “These nabobs waltzed into the capital with an arrogance that was breathtaking,” Learned said. “Their prefatorial deficit resulted in a polemical stance at absolute contraposition to the legislature’s puissance.”

Some education experts believe that the legislation will affect the way math is taught to Alabama’s children. One member of the state school board, Lily Ponja, is anxious to get the new value of π into the state’s math textbooks, but thinks that the old value should be retained as an alternative. She said, “As far as I am concerned, the value of π is only a theory, and we should be open to all interpretations.” She looks forward to students having the freedom to decide for themselves what value π should have.

Robert S. Dietz, a professor at Arizona State University who has followed the controversy, wrote that this is not the first time a state legislature has attempted to redifine the value of π. A legislator in the state of Indiana unsuccessfully attempted to have that state set the value of pi to 3. According to Dietz, the lawmaker was exasperated by the calculations of a mathematician who carried π to four hundred decimal places and still could not achieve a rational number. Many experts are warning that this is just the beginning of a national battle over π between traditional values supporters and the technical elite. Solomon Society member Lawson agrees. “We just want to return π to its traditional value,” he said, “which, according to the Bible, is three.”

As a final note, while the ALabama legislature never attempted to legislate the value of pi, the state of Indiana did. In 1897, House Bill No. 246 tried to legislate, among other things, the value of pi to be 3.2 exactly. While it passed in the House, the Senate agreed to postpone it indefinitely after being “coached” by a Purdue mathematician.

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