Brilliant editorial in this month’s The Actuary magazine.
Get real with equations
There is a disturbing new force at work in our society. More insidious than heroin or those pirate Finding Nemo DVDs which directly fund global terrorism, it threatens to strike at everything we hold dear.
Rogue equations are on the loose.
They began innocently a couple of years ago. Quirky Christmas articles in the Sun on the area of wrapping paper required for a Toblerone and suchlike, but they were one-offs written by desperate professors to feed their starving children and make their Christmas a little less miserable.
But now the malaise seems to be spreading. Recent issues of Cosmopolitan, with formulae for the perfect relationship, the perfect boyfriend, and the perfect career, have contained more maths than The Actuary. That can’t be right. And I have a sneaking suspicion that very little of it is properly peer-reviewed. Or even makes sense.
Digging a little deeper I turned up a seedy little underworld of backstreet academics trading equations for cash. In the old days, if you were a biscuit company wanting to get your name in the tabloids you had to go to the trouble of commissioning a bogus survey on the nation’s dunking habits. But now you can slip a mathematician a few bob and he’ll scribble down some algebra to find the perfect dunking angle before zipping off in his Lamborghini with a supermodel in the passenger seat. Pow! – instant headline. Of course, the maths doesn’t actually have to make sense. Who’s going to notice?
Dr Cliff Arnall, a health psychologist at Cardiff University, could lay a claim to being the Heidi Fleiss of this secret world. Already this year he has helped firms to find the formulae for the happiest day of the year and the best day to make a resolution. His latest offering is the formula for the perfect long weekend:
(C x R x ZZ)/((Tt + D) x St) + (P x Pr) >400
Tt = travel time
D = delays
C = time spent on cultural activities
R = time spent relaxing
ZZ = time spent sleeping
St = time spent in a state of stress
P = time spent packing
Pr = time spent in preparation
This is not good maths. For starters, what time units are used? Presumably they are needed to make sense of the threshold of 400 required for a fun time. It is also nonsense dimensionally, with mixed dimensions of T and T2 on the left-hand side. Finally, it implies that an infinitely good time can be had by staying at home and cutting your travel time to zero. Dr Arnall clearly enjoys packing though – perhaps he is a proper mathematician after all.
In the meantime, I am pleased to announce the founding of the Campaign for Real Equations. CAMRE will be a haven for like-minded individuals to grow beards, wear sandals, and extol the virtues of old-fashioned equations, identities, and functions. There will also be an annual CAMRE guide, listing places where one can be assured of equations of utmost quality, which will definitely feature The Actuary. And possibly Cosmopolitan, if it finally manages to come up with a proper formula for the perfect girl’s night in.
_ TRISTAN WALKER-BUCKTON