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Neolithic Pi


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To the editors:

The story about the legislatures of Indiana and other states wrestling with the value of pi [The Straight Dope, April 5] was interesting, but H.K. Saalbach's biblical reference was fascinating. I thank you for including it.

You might want to include this even earlier chapter in the saga: According to Alexander Thom, the late Scottish engineer-turned-archaeoastronomer, the neolithic peoples of western Europe also had an interest in regulating pi. Thom surveyed hundreds of sites in the British Isles and France and claimed that, for many sites, he was able to determine the geometrical layout of rough standing stones to an accuracy of 1 in 1,000. Aside from all the astronomical alignments and whatnot, he also claimed to have found a consistent pattern, in which many stone "circles" were purposefully distorted in such a way that the ratio between their diameter and circumference was equal to three. In essence they were rounding (or rather, "flattening") the value of pi. Other, less empirically inclined authors have proposed reasons for why they might have done this: three is a sacred number; small integers are sacred numbers, and so on. Thom himself merely believed that they laid out the ellipsoids with triangles using their own specific "Megalithic Yard"-stick.

Had these folks ever gotten around to inventing the wheel, we might all be driving around on "flat" tires.

Neal Duncan

Washington, D.C.

PS: We know Cecil is a busy warrior in the war against silliness, but just in case he wants to pursue this important topic, here are a couple of Thom's titles: A. Thom, Megalithic Sites in Britain, Oxford, 1967; A. Thom, Megalithic Lunar Observatories, Oxford, 1971. Even better, I'm enclosing a couple of drawings of flattened circle sites from the '67 book along with a page from his concluding chapter. By the way, Thom was emeritus professor of engineering sciences at Oxford U. (whoa!). Today his work on the megalithic sites is "respected" by the archaeology community as a well-meaning attempt to extract numerical data from these old ruins, but the degree of accuracy he claimed for that data is widely questioned.

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