The equation is just a collection of sciency-looking symbolsby Philip Ball / August 27, 2015 / Leave a comment
We do love a good equation, don’t we? It might be culturally acceptable, even fashionable, as Prospect has recently pointed out, to say that we are utterly dunder-headed at maths, but seemingly that does nothing to undermine our delight in a good equation. By good, I mean an equation that tells us something useful about our lives: how to make the perfect cup of tea, when is the most depressing day of the year, what makes the perfect airplane flight, or how England’s football team can improve its chances of winning the World Cup. (That last one was surely right, because Stephen Hawking came up with it.)
Some scientists can be very sniffy about this kind of thing, saying that these equations for the perfect doughnut/date/beach read are meaningless PR stunts that have zero science content. (With Stephen Hawking? Surely not!) Others will argue that they’re just a bit of fun, a way to get science on the news agenda and perhaps to encourage the public to see how a scientist breaks a problem down into cause and effect factors, and turns it into something quantifiable. That is presumably the thinking behind the latest “perfect equation”, offered by the Director of Engineering and Education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, which tells us how to select the Perfect Poohstick.
I can’t help wondering if this is a double bluff. Might the RAE perhaps be more interested in discovering whether the public and the media know what an equation actually is? If so, they might not be too surprised to find that knowledge lacking at the Daily Mail, though it is rather more alarming to see that neither the BBC nor the Guardian newsdesk has the faintest idea either. (I exclude those organs’ exemplary science writers, who will be pulling their hair out.)
You see, the Perfect Poohsticks equation doesn’t actually mean anything. I don’t mean that it doesn’t work (though I’m coming to that). I mean that it is not…