Alabama's Slice of Pi

Claim:   Responding to pressure from religious groups, Alabama's state legislature redefined the value of pi from 3.14159 to 3 in order to bring it in line with Biblical precepts.


Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 1998]

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.

[Click here to expand text].

Origins:   This wonderful bit of creative writing began circulating on the Internet in April 1998. Written by Mark Boslough as an April Fool's parody on legislative and school board attacks on evolution in New Mexico, the author took real statements from New Mexican legislators and school board members supporting creationism and recast them into a fictional account detailing how Alabama legislators had passed a law calling for the value of pi to be set to the "Biblical value" of 3.0.

This brilliant piece of humor was originally posted to the newsgroup on 1 April 1998 as well as sent to a list of New Mexican scientists and citizens interested in evolution and printed in the April issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter NMSR Reports. Its poster followed up
a day later with a full confession and explanation of the prank, thereby allowing others to share in the fun. One would have thought that would have been the end of it.

Ah but the Internet works in mysterious ways. Several readers forwarded the piece to friends and posted it to other newsgroups. As the story moved along, what would have easily identified it as a parody and not a news item was stripped out: the attribution to "April Holiday" of the "Associmated Press." Now it looked like a real news piece. Which is how it was received by many.

There is not now and never has been a bill in front of the Alabama state legislature to redefine the value of pi. With one exception, none of the names given in this fanciful account stand up to scrutiny.

The one exception is Guy Hunt. He is a former governor of Alabama, convicted in 1993 for diverting $200,000 from his inaugural fund to his personal use.

Though the claim about the Alabama state legislature is pure nonsense, it is similar to an event that happened more than a century ago. In 1897 the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure (House Bill no. 246, introduced by Rep. Taylor I. Record) regarding the calculation of the area of a circle that assigned various values to pi other than 3.14. (The bill died in the state Senate.)

Barbara "cornbread are square; pi are round" Mikkelson

Sightings:   In his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein makes passing mention of Tennessee's enacting a law making pi equal to 3.0.

Last updated:   13 March 2015


    Bussmann, Tom.   "Foreword: Zeitgeist."
    The [London] Guardian.   16 May 1998   (p. 8).

    Devlin, Keith.   "Off Line: Mythical Mathematics."
    The [London] Guardian.   3 July 1997   (p. 8).

    Habinger, Bernie.   "Rest Easy! Pi Is Not Changing!"
    Associated Press.   7 May 1998.

    Heinlein, Robert.   Stranger in a Strange Land.
    New York: G.P. Putnam, 1961.   ISBN 399-10772-X   (p. 360).

    Jaggi, Narendra.   "A Centenary Celebration of Clear Political Arrogance."
    The [Bloomington] Pantagraph.   13 July 1997   (p. A12).

    Truly, Pat.   "In Indiana, Pi R a Matter of Debate."
    The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.   3 March 1997   (p. 9).

    USA Today.   "Across the USA."
    8 May 1998   (p. A10).