How Pi Was Nearly Changed to 3.2 … and Copyrighted!

The sto­ry above—from our old friend James Grime of Num­ber­phile and Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty—has all the mak­ings of weirdo Amer­i­cana: bad ama­teur sci­ence, com­mer­cial ven­tures based upon the same, and a state leg­is­la­ture eager to embrace it all. In 1897, an ama­teur math­e­mati­cian named Edwin Good­win believed he’d solved an ancient prob­lem ruled insol­u­ble fif­teen years ear­li­er. He thought that he had squared the cir­cle and could rea­son­ably copy­right Pi as 3.2. Yes, that’s right, after his “dis­cov­ery,” Good­win, a native of Indi­ana, decid­ed to copy­right his proof so that any­one using it out­side of the state would have to pay him roy­al­ties.

But kind­ly, in a ges­ture of nativist good­will (or polit­i­cal oppor­tunism), Good­win decid­ed he would let his home state of Indi­ana use his proof for free for edu­ca­tion­al pur­pos­es. In fact, he said as much when he intro­duced a bill to the Indi­ana House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to rule his proof cor­rect and grant him sole pro­pri­etor­ship. And, as some­times hap­pens in sto­ries like this, the bill passed, unan­i­mous­ly, and the leg­is­la­tors were impressed. But one man wasn’t. By sheer chance, a pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics hap­pened to be in atten­dance. While he declined to meet math­e­mat­ics hero Edwin Good­win, he did take it upon him­self to warn the Indi­ana Sen­ate of what was com­ing its way. Luck­i­ly for the state’s school­child­ren, the Sen­ate threw the bill out, but not before a half-hour spent  mock­ing its silli­ness.

But is the idea of squar­ing a cir­cle ridicu­lous? Dr. Grime cites one Indi­an math­e­mati­cian who pro­posed a some­what fea­si­ble solu­tion. And what exact­ly does it mean to “square a cir­cle”? If you don’t know (and I don’t), you’ll have to wait till next time on Num­ber­phile, when Grime and his team promise to explain it to us rubes.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Math in Good Will Hunt­ing is Easy: How Do You Like Them Apples?

The Enig­ma Machine: How Alan Tur­ing Helped Break the Unbreak­able Nazi Code

Incred­i­ble Men­tal Math Gym­nas­tics on “Count­down”

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Rob D says:

    “one Indi­an math­e­mati­cian”? Ramanu­jan was one of the most bril­liant math­e­mati­cians ever.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thanks, Rob. Show­ing my math­e­mat­ics igno­rance…

  • Turf says:

    “bad ama­teur sci­ence, com­mer­cial ven­tures based upon the same, and a state leg­is­la­ture eager to embrace it all”?

    Al Gore will call you a heretic.

  • Pork says:

    It does­n’t mat­ter if pi was “changed”. The tran­scen­den­tal num­ber 3.14.…. would have exist­ed all the same. All this would have done was change a sym­bol.

  • Ron A. Zajac says:

    ATTN: Pork

    You miss the point. If pi had been “changed” by law, then, sure: 3.14… would be out there, float­ing around with oth­er irra­tional num­bers. But the whole point is that “pi” *is* that par­tic­u­lar, immutable, irra­tional num­ber. The law­mak­ers would have shown them­selves to be inveigh­ing against some­thing immutable. Which would have been right up their alley.

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