1 Comment »Posted on Thursday 14 January 2010 at 7:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Finding it difficult to meet your perfect partner? According to the Daily Mail, a”maths genius” can explain with a “baffling” equation. That’s right, it’s the first “formula for” story of 2010!

The Mail and others have leapt on a rather silly paper by Peter Backus, a University of Warwick economist. He’s used the Drake equation, which was originally intended to estimate the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy, to explain why he doesn’t have a girlfriend.

You can visit Wikipedia for an explanation of the Drake equation, or alternatively check out Colin’s dissertation for the full details. The basic idea is to break down all the requirements for alien life in to individual factors, such as the chance of a star having planets or a planet supporting life, then multiply them together to get the number of civilizations out there in space. Trouble is, we don’t have very reliable evidence to back up most of the figures, so estimates vary wildly.

Backus has used the same principal to find his perfect woman, and “discovered” that there are only 26 women in the UK that are suitable for him. That’s a one in 285,000 chance of meeting “the one”, apparently. Of course, the exact same criticism of the Drake equation can be applied here – most of his numbers are entirely subjective and not backed up by evidence. Pick some different numbers, and you’ll come up with an entirely different answer.

I can’t really blame Backus for his formula, as it’s not like he’s trying to sell anything or has got the maths wrong. What I find annoying is the way the media leaps on the figure of “one in 285,000″ as an absolute fact, and describes maths no more complicated than multiplication as if it were some sort of advanced calculus that should only be attempted by a genius. Let’s just hope no one discovers the ancient art of “division”, or our heads just might explode.

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