12 March 2012

A law imposing the wrong value of a number

Indiana State Legislature, 1897, House Bill No. 246, Section I. 
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Indiana: It has been found that a circular area is to the square on a line equal to the quadrant of the circumference, as the area of an equilateral rectangle is to the square on one side. 

(See here for the full text, the whole story, and our two quotations below.)

In the House, the bill was passed unanimously on February 5, 1897.  One said:
The case is perfectly simple. If we pass this bill which establishes a new and correct value for PI, the author offers to our state without cost the use of his discovery and its free publication in our school text books, while everyone else must pay him a royalty. 
On February 12, the Senate decided  to postpone the further consideration of this bill indefinitely.

A simple computation reveals that Indiana's "new value" of PI is wrong, but this is not the point. Legally imposing the right value would be less ridiculous, but just as wrong. The point is the presumption of a group of supposedly fairly well educated men to attempt to legislate upon something not in the realm of legislation.

By the way, scientists recently proposed to fix once and for all that Avogadro's number, a physical constant only approximately known, is exactly the cube of 84,446,888. This is not another Indiana Bill. It amounts to redefining what "one gram" means, and this is a mere convention, well in the realm of legislation. Sadly, we do have legislation ruling what can and cannot be said about certain historic events, and we may live to see the same for physical events like global warming. So far for Free Inquiry! Indiana rules!