It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Dec 30, 2013

Alabama Changes Value of Pi

The April 1998 newsletter put out by New Mexicans for Science and Reason contains an article titled "Alabama Legislature Lays Siege to Pi." It was penned by April Holiday of the Associmated (sic) Press and told the story of how the Alabama state legislature voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the round number of 3.

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Here is the story:

Alabama Legislature Lays Siege to Pi

By April Holiday

The Associalized Press

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- NASA engineers and mathematicians in this high-tech city are stunned and infuriated after the Alabama state legislature narrowly passed a law yesterday [March 30, 1998] redefining pi, a mathematical constant used in the aerospace industry. The bill to change the value of pi to exactly three 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 pi," said Marshall Bergman, a manager at the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. According to Bergman, pi (p) 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 pi is a universal constant, and cannot arbitrarily be changed by lawmakers. Johanson explained that pi 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, pi is precisely 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 altar 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 Montgomery on Monday. "Pi is merely an artifact of Euclidean geometry." Humbleys is working on a theory which he says will prove that pi 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 pi 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 circumference 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 pi 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 pi 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 pi 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 pi 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 redefine the value of pi. A legislator in the state of Indiana unsuccessfully attempted to have that state set the value of pi to three. According to Dietz, the lawmaker was exasperated by the calculations of a mathematician who carried pi 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 pi between traditional values supporters and the technical elite. Solomon Society member Lawson agrees. "We just want to return pi to its traditional value," he said, "which, according to the Bible, is three."

The ersatz news story was written by Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Mark Boslough to parody legislative and school board attacks on the teaching of evolution in New Mexico.

At Boslough's suggestion, Dave Thomas, the president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, posted the article in its entirety to the Internet newsgroup on April 1. (The newsgroup hosts a lively debate on creation vs. evolution.) Later that evening Thomas posted a full confession to the hoax. He thought he had put all rumors to bed.

But to Thomas's surprise, however, several newsgroup readers forwarded the article to friends and posted it on other newsgroups.

When Thomas checked in on the story a few weeks later, he was surprised to learn that it had spread like wildfire. The telltale signs of the article's satirical intent, such as the April 1 date and misspelled "Associmated Press" dateline, had been replaced or deleted.

Alabama legislators were bombarded with calls protesting the law. The legislators explained that the news was a hoax. There was not and never had been such a law.

About Indiana Pi Bill

The Indiana Pi Bill is the popular name for bill #246 of the 1897 sitting of the Indiana General Assembly, one of the most famous attempts to establish mathematical truth by legislative fiat. Despite that name, the main result claimed by the bill is a method to square the circle, rather than to establish a certain value for the mathematical constant π (pi), the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. However, the bill does contain text that appears to dictate various incorrect values of π, such as 3.2. (In fact, π = 3.14159265...).

The bill easily passed committee and was unanimously passed by the house. Representatives received it favorably, with one gushing that "The case is perfectly simple. If we pass this bill which establishes a new and correct value of pi, the author offers our state without cost the use of his discovery and its free publication in our school textbooks, while everyone else must pay him a royalty."

However, the bill never became law, due to the intervention of a mathematics professor who happened to be present in the legislature. C.A. Waldo, a professor of mathematics from Purdue, was in town in order to procure the annual state funding for his university. He read the bill and talked sense into enough members of the Senate that the bill was never passed.

The impossibility of squaring the circle using only compass and straightedge, suspected since ancient times, was rigorously proven in 1882 by Ferdinand von Lindemann. Better approximations of π than those inferred from the bill have been known since ancient times.

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But good stories never die, they just evolve. Same state, same legislation–but this time around, it was introduced by a tea-party-backed Congresswomen from Alabama as a bill to change U.S. law. Here is post from Huffington Post, published March 2011:

Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-Ala.) is sponsoring HR 205, The Geometric Simplification Act, declaring the Euclidean mathematical constant of pi to be precisely 3. The bill comes in response to data and rankings from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, rating the United States' 15 year-olds 25th in the world in mathematics.

OECD is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011, and the Paris-based NGO released its international educational rankings, placing the US in a three-way tie for math, equaling Portugal and Ireland, just beneath No. 24 Luxembourg.

"That long-held empirical value of pi, I am not saying it should be necessarily viewed as wrong, but 3 is a lot better," said Roby, the 34-year old legislator representing Alabama's second congressional district, ushered into office in the historic 2010 Republican mid-term bonanza.

Pi has long been defined as the ratio of a circle's area to the square of its radius, a mathematical constant represented by the Greek letter "π," with a value of approximately 3.14159. HR 205 does not change the root definition, per se. The bill simply, and legally, declares pi to be exactly 3.

Roby, raised in Montgomery, Ala., is on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.

"It's no panacea, but this legislation will point us in the right direction. Looking at hard data, we know our children are struggling with a heck of a lot of the math, including the geometry incorporating pi," Roby said. "I guarantee you American scores will go up once pi is 3. It will be so much easier."

Democrats first responded to the measure with a mixture of incredulity and amusement.

"Really?" asked George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Education and Labor Committee. "Isn't that an awful lot like assuming only even numbers can be negative? You can't legislate math; that's like making it illegal to rain on the Fourth of July," the San Francisco Bay area representative chuckled.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ridiculed objections from the left as further examples of classic elitist liberalism.

"Democrats don't want our children to succeed, they would actually feel better if France one day bests our kids on that test," Boehner said, unaware that, by tying Slovakia for 16th, France already does outrank the US in math. "Time after time, Democrats refuse to acknowledge American exceptionalism, and they're doing it again by trying to deny our children another tool for success."

Rep. Roby took a slightly more pragmatic stance.

"For decades, we've all been learning that pi is this crazy 'irrational' number. And any number with no end is, not, well, it makes it really hard," Roby said. "We talked about making pi 3-and-a-third, but that wouldn't really help, because you're still then stuck with endless threes."

HR 205 is expected to pass the House of Representatives but even if it also passes in the Senate -- unlikely with Democrats maintaining a slim majority -- President Obama has pledged to veto.

"I badly want to refuse to dignify HR 205 with acknowledgment, but... my Republican friends are serious," Obama said. "And I don't care how strongly Geometric Simplification has been polling, I just can't be responsible for that." The president added, "Unless there's something on the table. Barack Obama does love a good compromise. Maybe if Republicans will agree to let Planned Parenthood perform AIDS testing. Or just convince the Tea Party Caucus to at least publicly agree it is the Earth that revolves around the sun, and not the other way around."

New York City Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) responded to Roby's legislation with a massive brain aneurysm. Democrats are hopeful to retain his New York City seat in an April special election.

But, may be they all are wrong, and Pi simply should be equal 4?

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