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Published on April 26, 2012 by in Columns

I’ve never been one for math.   We are raised believing that there are two kinds of people in this world—and I’m the kind that reads and writes, not the type that solves for “x.”

That being said, I have recently developed a new appreciation for the mathematic mind.  My intrigue began when, about six months ago, I became addicted to “Numb3rs,” the now-cancelled television show.  I blew through the entire series on Netflix in a few weeks, and developed a new respect for the application of math and science, and their capacity for solving real-life problems in our everyday world.

Just this week, I’ve encountered several stories about creative discoveries and revelations—for which we have our charting-and-graphing brethren to thank.  And, let’s just get this out of the way right now, the world would be less interesting without them.


It all started with “Numb3rs.”

For example, Dmitri Krioukov is a professor of Physics at the University of California in San Diego.  He was recently charged with driving through a stop sign.  So he did what physicists do: he wrote an academic paper, which he called “The Proof of Innocence,” in which he explained that the police officer’s perspective—about 30m from the stop sign—created an illusion, thus compromising his eyewitness testimony.  The professor asserted that “a car approaching the intersection with constant linear velocity will rapidly increase in angular velocity from the police officer’s perspective.”  He even drew graphs and charts to explain the discrepancy between what the officer saw, versus what actually happened.

Professor Krioukov won his dispute, escaping a $400 fine.  And the article has since been published.

Six years ago, John Tierney and Garth Sundem developed an equation that was able to predict, with surprising accuracy, celebrity divorces.  It was published in 2006 in The New York Times.  Using a few metrics like age, fame, and sexiness, the celebrity couple’s fate could be foreseen in most cases.

But last week Sundem and Tierney revealed that they had actually improved upon their old equation.  The old equation established a celebrity’s fame by factoring the millions of Google hits—but that doesn’t take into account the “flavor” of his or her fame.  For example, if Khloe Kardashian and Chelsea Clinton are tied, statistically, using the Google metric, one still has to acknowledge that there is something drastically different about the type of fame each enjoys.

To correct for this, Sundem scrapped the Google metric altogether, and devised a ratio of two other numbers: the number of mentions in The New York Times, divided by mentions in The National Enquirer.  (If you work through it, you’ll realize that Clinton’s number would be substantially larger than Kardashian’s—indicating that the latter is plagued by the type of celebrity toxicity that destroys high-profile marriages.)  They also realized that the wife’s NYT/ENQ ratio is profoundly more predictive than the husband’s, which the equation doesn’t even use.  With this new metric, they’ve also done away with some other factor from the old equation, like age difference and previous marriages.

And, while we’re on the subject of surprisingly-predictive equations, researchers at the University of Bristol in theU.K.have established that public opinion can be gauged by analyzing Twitter posts.  Analyzing and graphing the usage of common words that carry positive or negative connotations, they can assess the general mood of the citizenry.  For instance, negative usage spiked as the recession kicked in, but positive usage began to peak as the royal wedding neared.

While I’m certainly not the type to stand at a chalkboard, crunching numbers, thank goodness for those who are.  They help us to better understand our world, and for that I’m grateful.

Originally printed in “Pulse,” 04/26/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012.  All rights reserved.

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