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Futility Closet

Apr 24, 2016

In 1897, confused physician Edward J. Goodwin submitted a bill to the Indiana General Assembly declaring that he'd squared the circle -- a mathematical feat that was known to be impossible. In today's show we'll examine the Indiana pi bill, its colorful and eccentric sponsor, and its celebrated course through a bewildered legislature and into mathematical history.

We'll also marvel at the confusion wrought by turkeys and puzzle over a perplexing baseball game.

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Sources for our feature on the Indiana pi bill:

Edward J. Goodwin, "Quadrature of the Circle," American Mathematical Monthly 1:7 (July 1894), 246–248.

Text of the bill.

Underwood Dudley, "Legislating Pi," Math Horizons 6:3 (February 1999), 10-13.

Will E. Edington, “House Bill No. 246, Indiana State Legislature, 1897,” Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 45, 206-210.

Arthur E. Hallerberg, "House Bill No. 246 Revisited," Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 84 (1974), 374–399.

Arthur E. Hallerberg, "Indiana's Squared Circle," Mathematics Magazine 50:3 (May 1977), 136–140.

David Singmaster, "The Legal Values of Pi," Mathematical Intelligencer 7:2 (1985), 69–72.

Listener mail:

Zach Goldhammer, "Why Americans Call Turkey 'Turkey,'" Atlantic, Nov. 26, 2014.

Dan Jurafsky, "Turkey," The Language of Food, Nov. 23, 2010 (accessed April 21, 2016).

Accidental acrostics from Julian Bravo:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
STASIS starts at line 7261 (“Says I to myself” in Chapter XXVI).

CASSIA starts at line 443 (“Certainly; it would indeed be very impertinent” in Letter 4).
MIGHTY starts at line 7089 (“Margaret, what comment can I make” in Chapter 24).

Moby Dick:
BAIT starts at line 12904 (“But as you come nearer to this great head” in Chapter 75). (Note that this includes a footnote.)

The raw output of Julian's program is here; he warns that it may contain some false positives.

At the paragraph level (that is, the initial letters of successive paragraphs), Daniel Dunn found these acrostics (numbers refer to paragraphs):

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: SEMEMES (1110)

Emma: INHIBIT (2337)

King James Bible: TAIWAN (12186)

Huckleberry Finn: STASIS (1477)

Critique of Pure Reason: SWIFTS (863)

Anna Karenina: TWIST (3355)

At the word level (the initial letters of successive words), Daniel found these (numbers refer to the position in a book's overall word count -- I've included links to the two I mentioned on the show):

Les Miserables: DASHPOTS (454934)

Critique of Pure Reason: TRADITOR (103485)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: ISATINES (373818)

Through the Looking Glass: ASTASIAS (3736)

War and Peace: PIRANHAS (507464) (Book Fifteen, Chapter 1, paragraph 19: "'... put it right.' And now he again seemed ...")

King James Bible: MOHAMAD (747496) (Galatians 6:11b-12a, "... mine own hand. As many as desire ...")

The Great Gatsby: ISLAMIC (5712)

Huckleberry Finn: ALFALFA (62782)

Little Women: CATFISH (20624)

From Vadas Gintautas: Here is the complete list of accidental acrostics of English words of 8 letters or more, found by taking the first letter in successive paragraphs:

TABITHAS in George Sand: Some Aspects of Her Life and Writings by René Doumic

BASSISTS in The Pilot and his Wife by Jonas Lie

ATACAMAS in Minor Poems of Michael Drayton

MAINTAIN in The Stamps of Canada by Bertram W.H. Poole

BATHMATS in Fifty Years of Public Service by Shelby M. Cullom

ASSESSES in An Alphabetical List of Books Contained in Bohn's Libraries

LATTICES in History of the Buccaneers of America by James Burney

ASSESSES in Old English Chronicles by J. A. Giles

BASSISTS in Tales from the X-bar Horse Camp: The Blue-Roan "Outlaw" and Other Stories by Barnes

CATACOMB in Cyrano De Bergerac

PONTIANAK in English Economic History: Select Documents by Brown, Tawney, and Bland

STATIONS in Haunted Places in England by Elliott O'Donnell

TRISTANS in Revolutionary Reader by Sophie Lee Foster

ALLIANCE in Latter-Day Sweethearts by Mrs. Burton Harrison

TAHITIAN in Lothair by Benjamin Disraeli

Vadas' full list of accidental acrostics in the King James Bible (first letter of each verse) for words of at least five letters:

ASAMA in The Second Book of the Kings 16:21
TRAIL in The Book of Psalms 80:13
AMATI in The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 3:9
STABS in The Acts of the Apostles 23:18
ATTAR in The Book of Nehemiah 13:10
FLOSS in The Gospel According to Saint Luke 14:28
SANTA in The First Book of the Chronicles 16:37
WATTS in Hosea 7:13
BAATH in The Acts of the Apostles 15:38
ASSAM in The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 12:8
CHAFF in The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans 4:9
FIFTH in The Book of Psalms 61:3
SAABS in The Third Book of the Kings 12:19
SATAN in The Book of Esther 8:14
TANGS in Zephaniah 1:15
STOAT in The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 16:20
IGLOO in The Proverbs 31:4
TEETH in Hosea 11:11
RAILS in The Book of Psalms 80:14
STATS in The First Book of the Kings 26:7
HALON in The Fourth Book of the Kings 19:12
TATTY in The Gospel According to Saint John 7:30
DIANA in The Second Book of the Kings 5:4
ABAFT in The Third Book of Moses: Called Leviticus 25:39
BAHIA in The Book of Daniel 7:26
TRAILS in The Book of Psalms 80:13
FIFTHS in The Book of Psalms 61:3
BATAAN in The First Book of Moses: Called Genesis 25:6
DIANAS in The Second Book of the Kings 5:4
BATAANS in The Second Book of the Chronicles 26:16

Vadas' full list of accidental acrostics (words of at least eight letters) found by text-wrapping the Project Gutenberg top 100 books (for the last 30 days) to line lengths from 40 to 95 characters (line length / word found):


Great Expectations



War and Peace

The Romance of Lust: A Classic Victorian Erotic Novel by Anonymous

Steam, Its Generation and Use by Babcock & Wilcox Company

The Count of Monte Cristo

The Republic

A Study in Scarlet

The Essays of Montaigne

Crime and Punishment

Complete Works--William Shakespeare

The Time Machine

Democracy in America, VI

The King James Bible

Anna Karenina

David Copperfield

Le Morte d'Arthur, Volume I

Vadas also points out that there's a body of academic work addressing acrostics in Milton's writings. For example, in Book 3 of Paradise Lost Satan sits among the stars looking "down with wonder" at the world:

Such wonder seis'd, though after Heaven seen,
The Spirit maligne, but much more envy seis'd
At sight of all this World beheld so faire.
Round he surveys, and well might, where he stood
So high above the circling Canopie
Of Nights extended shade ...

The initial letters of successive lines spell out STARS. Whether that's deliberate is a matter of some interesting debate. Two further articles:

Mark Vaughn, "More Than Meets the Eye: Milton's Acrostics in Paradise Lost," Milton Quarterly 16:1 (March 1982), 6–8.

Jane Partner, "Satanic Vision and Acrostics in Paradise Lost," Essays in Criticism 57:2 (April 2007), 129-146.

And listener Charles Hargrove reminds us of a telling acrostic in California's recent political history.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lawrence Miller, based on a Car Talk Puzzler credited to Willie Myers.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

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