Simplifying Pi?: Article a Hoax, But Hits Close to Home

Pi, the mathmatical constant, is a never-ending irrational number.
Pi, the mathmatical constant, is a never-ending irrational number. (Image credit: German, Wikimedia Commons)

A satiric article by Ian Squires at the Huffington Post claims that Republican congresswoman Martha Roby is sponsoring a bill, allegedly named HR 205: The Geometric Simplification Act, that would legally define pi as 3 (instead of 3.14159…), to "make math easier for our children." Of course "The Onion"-esque article is fake, but it almost hits too close to home.

"Hopefully the government wouldn't actually get involved in this," said Samuel Rankin, associate executive director of the American Mathematical Society. "This is not something that should be up for legislation."

The article is obviously a hoax, though Roby did have to announce that fact on her website: "The 'Pi' story is a hoax and is untrue. It was written by a liberal blogger in the comedy section of the Huffington Post. No such bill exists, as evidenced by a quick check of Thank you for not falling for the joke (even though it is humorous)."

The identically numbered HR 205 bill was introduced in 2009 and aims to repeal several death-related taxes, but it never made it out of committee.

In a political climate that has repeatedly denounced and distorted science — including issues ranging from climate change to evolution —  this piece of comedic fiction almost becomes unfunny in the sad truth that lies in its message.

It also speaks to United States'  ranking in science and math education around the world. For instance, in the most recent report from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), researchers found that in math, U.S. fourth-graders placed 11th out of 36 countries tested while eighth-graders scored ninth out of 48 countries. In science, U.S. fourth-graders placed eighth and eighth-graders were 11th.

While life might be much easier if pi were a "normal" round number, its oddity is what makes it special. As far as we know, the string of random numbers continues on forever. The furthest digit anyone has ever calculated was the 5-trillionth digit, discovered in 2010. It took 90 days to calculate on a specially built desktop computer. That digit is a 2.

One of the strangest facts about pi is that since we can't really know its exact value (since it never ends), we can't actually know the exact circumference (the distance around the outside edge) of any circle, whose mathematical formula includes pi. Most approximations past a half-dozen digits do the trick for most applications, but fully rounding pi to 3 would ruin its use in almost any application, scientists say.

But pi isn't just a number that helps high-schoolers define the area and circumference of circles. It shows up pretty much everywhere in math, science and engineering. Pi plays a role in Einstein's equations of general relativity and the Greeks used it to build their buildings. (For instance, if a Greek builder wanted to construct a column, pi would help him or her figure out the amount of cement needed to fill the structure.)

"This is not a number someone just made up. It's a ratio between the circumference of a circle and the diameter," Rankin told LiveScience. "I suppose when people don't understand things, they want to get them changed."

Actually, the numbers that make up pi are so long and so random you can find virtually any number within them, including your Social Security or bank account numbers. You can search for yours in the first 200 million digits on this pi search website.

Joke or not, pi is much too special to let silly little laws get in the way. Actually, that lesson was already learned in 1897, when the Indiana General Assembly actually did try to legislate pi, by introducing a bill — which came to be known as the Indiana Pi Bill — that claimed a method to "square the circle" (a now-debunked way of estimating pi) a full 15 years after scientists declared it impossible. The bill would have passed if Purdue University professor C.A. Waldo hadn't been there to refute it.

Luckily the imaginary bill isn't real. Yet.

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover.

Jennifer Welsh

Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.