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 Guy Hunt 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 calculate".
"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 Mongtomery 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 all directions.
"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 puissance."
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 should have.
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 three."