The conservative Alabama state legislature’s reputation for hating science was mocked in one the most famous April Fools’ Day pranks of all time.
A rumor circulated on April 1, 1998, that an Alabama Republican had introduced legislation rounding down the value of pi to a whole number — and the parody was so plausible that it recirculates over and over, reported AL.com.
“NASA engineers and mathematicians in this high-tech city are stunned and infuriated after the Alabama state legislature narrowly passed a law yesterday [March 30, 1998] redefining pi, a mathematical constant used in the aerospace industry,” reads the parody posted to an online news group.
“The bill to change the value of pi to exactly three was introduced without fanfare by Leonard Lee Lawson (R-Crossville),” the prank continues, “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.”
The original parody was written by Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Mark Boslough, according to Hoax.org, to make fun of the state legislature and local school boards for interfering with the teaching of evolution.
The physicist urged Dave Thomas, the president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, to post the story on its news group as an April Fools’ Day prank, and the parody quickly spread.
Thomas identified the piece as a parody, but it was picked up by news outlets and spread widely in the days before social media.
Alabama lawmakers were forced to assure a deluge of callers that they had no plans to change pi from its infinite decimal value starting with 3.14.
However, the prank was revived again in 2011 when the Huffington Post posted a similar parody claiming that Rep. Martha Roby (R-Montgomery) planned to introduce congressional legislation redefining the value of pi.
“Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-Ala.) is sponsoring HR 205, The Geometric Simplification Act,” that parody claimed, “declaring the Euclidean mathematical constant of pi to be precisely 3. The bill comes in response to data and rankings from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, rating the United States’ 15 year-olds 25th in the world in mathematics.”
That hoax spread so quickly that Roby had to assure voters on her website that it wasn’t true.
“The ‘Pi’ story is a hoax and is untrue,” the Alabama Repubican said. “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 http://thomas.loc.gov/. Thank you for not falling for the joke (even though it is humorous).”
Indiana’s state legislature actually did vote to amend the legal value of pi to 3.2 in February 1897, after amateur mathematician Edward Goodwin believed he had figured out how to “square the circle” measured by the infinite decimal.
However, the bill was ultimately shelved by the state Senate when Purdue University math professor Clarence Abiathar Waldo, who happened to be visiting on an unrelated matter, heard the debate and gave an impromptu geometry lesson.