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Profiles in Badassery: Clarence A. Waldo

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Clarence Abiathor Waldo
Clarence Abiathor Waldo

In this election season there is nothing I like more than proving the stupidity of our politicians. A prime example is Christine O'Donnell and her supposed status as an expert on the Constitution. She actually knows less than your average high school senior in a government class, but why would we want our legislators to know the most important document in our government, anyway?

Throughout history the various national and state governments have accomplished a variety of wonderful things. They declared war on Japan and Germany, thus stopping one of the most evil men in history. They have come up with hundreds of great programs that benefit mankind. They have also had their share of ridiculous ideas, such as the Indiana Pi Controversy of 1897. That is where today's Profile in Badassery comes into play.

Who was Clarence Waldo?

Since getting an A in calculus back in high school I haven't been much of a math guy. There's not a ton of use for it in my profession outside of statistics and such. Clarence Waldo was a whiz at math though, thus helping him find a home at Purdue. After earning his undergrad from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D from Syracuse by 1893 he was renowned as one of the top math professors in the world. Two years later he became the head Professor of Mathematics at Purdue, a position he would have until 1908 when I can only assume he left to follow the world champion Chicago Cubs.

Most of his fame came in 1897, when he argued before the Indiana State Senate as to why pi should not be re-defined as square. Now I have seen some dumb legislation in my life. We currently have a Congress that cannot master the simple economic concept of "don't spend more than you have coming in." In 1897 though the Indiana State Senate, for reasons I can assume were budget motivated, decided to push through that the value of pi should be 3.12. From the Wikipedia entry on the matter:

In 1897, Indiana physician and amateur mathematician Edwin J. Goodwin (ca. 1825 - 1902) believed that he had discovered a correct way of squaring the circle. He proposed a bill to Indiana Representative Taylor I. Record, which Record introduced in the House under the title A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature of 1897.

The text of the bill consists of a series of mathematical claims (detailed below), followed by a recitation of Goodwin's previous accomplishments:

... his solutions of the trisection of the angle, doubling the cube and quadrature of the circle having been already accepted as contributions to science by the American Mathematical Monthly ... And be it remembered that these noted problems had been long since given up by scientific bodies as unsolvable mysteries and above man's ability to comprehend.

These false claims are typical of a mathematical crank. Claims of the trisection of an angle and the doubling of the cube are particularly widespread in crank literature. According to Doron Zeilberger, Goodwin's "solutions" were indeed published in the AMM, though with a disclaimer.

Strangely enough, this bill actually passed unanimously in the House, thus proving how ignorant some people can be in politics. Waldo happened to be in Indianapolis to secure funding for the Indiana Academy of Sciences, and an assemblyman gave him a copy of the bill.

Now, this is your typical politician, likely enamored with his own genius. He gave this piece of hogwash to a brilliant mathematician and assumed that he would be stunned by the brilliance contained within. Waldo was a Purdue man though, endowed with the powers that come with making the numbers dance to his will. Here was a brilliant man and a badass that knew math inside and out. You have to love his response to seeing the bill:

An assemblyman handed him the bill, offering to introduce him to the genius who wrote it. He declined, saying that he already knew as many crazy people as he cared to.

Naturally, Waldo probably thought these people were about as intelligent in the field of math as your average shoe, yet they were trying to dictate policy. Waldo took it upon himself to educate them on the matter, and convinced enough senators to postpone its passage indefinitely.

I could go into the math of the bill here, but my eyes would glaze over since my math skills have eroded greatly with time. Mr. Kunkle, my Calculus teacher (and fellow Purdue grad) would be ashamed of me for that, but it's my own fault. If you want to know the math behind Goodwin's idea you can look at the page and see it. Needless to say, Waldo proved that this guy was a crackpot and way off in his calculations.  Waldo showed that he was off by as much as 21%, thus saving these guys from their own stupidity.

Considering that the state of Indiana was hellbent on signing this bill into law, it would have made our proud state the laughingstock of the country. Waldo saved the state from that feat, until years later when the mass delusion of Indiana basketball and Notre Dame football fans established it in the early 21st century.

The rest of Waldo's life was pretty uneventful. He died in New York City in 1926. He was a math genius who built his theories upon his deep religious foundations. He was also a true Boilermaker Mental Badass capable of saving a government body from its own stupidity.