Posted tagged ‘3’

Pi Day and its discontents

March 14, 2008

Today — March 14 or 3/14 — is as everyone should know a not very public holiday celebrating all things circular: Pi Day!

Traditional rituals involve re-enacting the picnic scene in Harold and the Purple Crayon.

I made that up, of course, but parents of small children will understand (or if you don’t, go out and get that wonderful book right now.)

But what would be Pi Day on a science blog without a tip of the pixel to some of our less reasoned friends.

It’s an urban legend that Alabama’s legislature once tried to assert the rule of law to set pi to 3. It is true that there is are two verses in the Hebrew Bible that seem to say pi is in fact that nice round number — I Kings, Ch. 7 v. 3 and II Chron. Ch. 4 v. 2. In Kings, it reads: And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it about.

Before anyone gets too excited, remember that Biblical literalism is a mug’s game. A cubit is in fact a biologically based measure — the distance from a man’s elbow to his extended fingers. That ain’t too precise, nor is the notion of a brass casting four or five meters across. The short form — as this nicely compacted history of pi points out — no one should take the Bible for a geometry text. (In other words — I think skeptics who point to this as an example of religious delusion are overthinking the passage, just as the labored attempts by some apologists to come up with an interpretation to ascribe to Solomon’s temple builders more than practical mensuration don’t convince.)

But still, it is true that no one ever lost money betting the over on stupid. So, for your Pi Day pleasure, consider Indiana House Bill 246, submitted in 1897. The bill, submitted by someone described as an eccentric mathematician (sic) required that pi be set equal to 3.2.

The measure actually past the state House of Representatives by a vote of 67-0.

The state Senate fortunately knew stupid when they saw it, and the bill was referred to the Committee on Temperance. (I would have needed a stiff drink before I read the thing), and then killed the measure with a device called an “indefinite postponement” — in which state that overstuffed Indiana pi remains.

Friday Newton blogging to come on an alternate day; for now…have a good weekend.

Image: From Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, Book I, Chapter 10. Source: Wikimedia Commons. You have got to admit — these are some of the coolest circles in print.