Reflections on Pi Day, March 14

Posted on Sat, March 14, 2015
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Clarence A. Waldo

<p><span><span>Professor <span>Clarence A. Waldo</span>, from the 1899 Purdue yearbook.</span></span></p>

 

Purdue University, located in West Lafayette, Indiana, has a special place in the annals of space exploration, having among its graduates 23 (and counting) astronauts, including Gus Grissom, Neil Armstrong, and a host of shuttle crew members, who have flown on more than 40 shuttle missions. Today, March 14, on which we celebrate the number π, whose decimal expansion begins 3.14159…, it is fitting to recognize a less well-known “boilermaker,” Clarence A. Waldo, professor of mathematics. In February, 1897, Professor Waldo was visiting the Indiana State Capitol, to look into the issue of appropriations for the school, when he learned to his astonishment that the Indiana House had passed, unanimously, “a bill introducing a new mathematical truth,” that claimed to have solved the age-old problem of “squaring the circle”—the problem of constructing a square with the same area as a given circle by using only a finite number of steps with a compass and straightedge. The bill had been introduced by Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin, M.D., who also implied in the bill four finite and conflicting values of π including 9.24, 3.236, 3.232 , and 3.2—values of π that were not an endless, non-repeating set of digits. Dr. Goodwin was offering his discovery free of charge to Indiana, while asserting that other states would have to pay royalties for its use. The bill was about to be passed by the Indiana Senate, when Professor Waldo intervened and persuaded the Senate to table it; the bill was apparently never again brought up for consideration. One can only speculate what might have happened had the bill been passed into law. Would Neil Armstrong have stepped on the surface of the Moon 72 years later? Perhaps. The desire to “square the circle” goes on. To date no one has succeeded. Happy π day!