Traditional Values (for pi)
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 4 May 98 11:17:08 -0700
Subject: Traditional Values (for pi)
[There are people who believe that everything you really need to know you can
learn from kindergarten, others believe the same thing about the Bible (the
sacred volume of Christians)... I'm not sure either one adequately prepares
you for irrational numbers, though... -psl]
Forwarded-by: "Joyce E. Green" <JEBGREEN@geode.umnh.utah.edu>
Forwarded-by: Michael Green <mgreen@MSUS1.MSUS.EDU>
Forwarded-by: Gerry Naughton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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 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 Fob
James 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 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 precisly defined by
mathematics to be "3.14159, plus as many more digits as you have time to
"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 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
"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 circumfence to diameter.
"Anyone with a compass, flexible ruler, and globe can see for themselves,"
suggests Humbleys, "its 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
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
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 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
© 1998 Peter Langston