International Day of Maths: a nod to expertise

This article originally appeared in the CIA (e)Bulletin.

March 14, International Day of Maths, is not just a celebration of numbers but a nod to the expertise of those who use them. Expertise in math has taken us to the moon, given us commerce, and for better or worse, changed the way we communicate.

But this is a story about how the absence of expertise can also remind us of its importance.

The importance of expertise

There is no number more synonymous with math than 3.14159… and yet few know the story of the Indiana Pi Bill – an ill-fated quest to redefine the most widely known mathematical constant in history.

The stage was 1894 Indiana, when Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin, an eccentric physician and amateur mathematician, first began his campaign. Believing he had discovered how to “square a circle”, Goodwin managed to convince his state representative, Taylor I. Record, to bring forward Bill 246 recognizing his method of squaring the circle as part of Indiana Law. This method implied, among other things, that the value of pi should be set at a fixed value of 3.2.

It had been proven years earlier that squaring the circle was mathematically impossible, but that didn’t seem to matter to Goodwin. All he needed was to alter some of the fundamental rules of mathematics to make his method work.

Emboldened by his appearance in American Mathematical Monthly, Goodwin described the bill as “a new mathematical truth offered as a contribution to education”– a gift he both humbly and graciously offered to the State of Indiana free of cost.

Met with confusion by Indiana’s befuddled General Assembly, the bill bounced around several committees before landing with the Committee on Education. Churned on by the support of the Indianapolis press, on February 2, 1897, S.E. Nicholson, Chair of the Committee on Education, recommended the House pass the bill. A unanimous vote of 67 to 0 meant Goodwin’s law was on its way to Senate.

Despite gross errors, few came forward to question the validity of Goodwin’s assertions. That was until Professor Waldo, head professor of mathematics at Purdue University and president of the Indiana Academy of Science stepped in.

Reaching the Senate on February 10, the bill was once again passed off, this time to the Committee on Temperance. By February 12 the bill was rejected.

Adamant in its repeal, Professor Waldo used his expertise to properly coach senators to speak against the bill; debunking the idea that a rational value of pi could ever result in the simplification of mathematics.

Good sense had finally prevailed, but the damage was done. By now, news of the bill had spread making Indianapolis legislature and creator of the bill, Goodwin, laughingstocks of the East.

Twenty years on, Professor Waldo would revel in his win claiming, “It was probably the Indiana Academy of Science along which prevented this monstrosity!” While a discredited Goodwin retired quietly to await a “genius” that would never come.

The moral of the story is that when it comes to complex mathematical concepts, always trust the qualified experts.

Actuaries turn numbers into knowledge

This math month join us in celebrating the expertise of Canada’s professional actuaries who use math, stats, and probability to help ensure the financial security of Canadians.

Their mastery over numbers is what makes them subject authorities and a credible voice in a world of armchair experts.

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