New Scientist

The new oat cuisineI recently received an e-mail which began “Dear Dr Len: I do PR for a breakfast cereal company, and we would like an authoritative figure, such as yourself, to come up with an equation as to when to include the milk.”

I have been getting similar e-mails and telephone calls since 1998, when I agreed to provide a biscuit company with an equation to predict the optimum time to dunk a biscuit in a cup of tea. My motives were honourable – I had conceived the idea of making science accessible by showing how scientists think about the little problems of everyday life, and this seemed an ideal opportunity to try out my new approach. The equation was an advertising company’s idea. I couldn’t believe that the public would be interested, but the world-wide publicity that followed showed how wrong I had been, and the equation boom was born.

The public appetite for equations continues unabated. There have been equations for parking your car, assembling a DIY flatpack, pulling a Christmas cracker, and understanding why the street that you want on a map always seems to be near a fold. I have myself contributed to the flood, notably with an equation to calculate the amount of gravy absorbed by a Christmas dinner, which led to the classic tabloid headline “You’ve got to be Bisto kidding!” At least that wasn’t as bad as “The Law of Gravyty”, or the response to my more recent equation describing the best way to stir porridge, which elicited the headline “The new oat cuisine”.

The public interest in equations goes right against the accepted tenet of popular science writing, that every equation halves the sales of a book. New Scientist editor Michael Bond has speculated to me that perhaps the interest reflects our modern obsession for “packaging” information into bite-size portions. I’m not so sure. Scientists certainly use equations as a way of packaging information, but there is a great deal of information contained in the package. My own original speculation was that scientists are seen by many as the inheritors of the ancient priestly power of the keys, the owners and controllers of seemingly forbidden knowledge. Equations are one key to that knowledge, and by showing how they apply to commonplace situations we are making the key available to journalists and their readers.

My subsequent experience has led to a less sanguine view. Just going back over my e-mails of the last five years, I find that I have been asked to provide equations to “prove” that one manufacturer’s biscuit is better than another, that square-shaped cereal bowls are best, and that a particular brand of chocolate bar gives the best flavour. My favourite was from a publicity company who recently wanted a formula to prove scientifically that October 7th is the perfect date to start shopping for Christmas.

I have patiently explained to all of these people that I only involve myself in such projects if they provide a vehicle for me to share what science is really about. Some of my questioners have seemed genuinely astonished when I explained that pre-judging issues and then providing “proof” is not science. On other occasions, though, requests that I have had to refuse for other reasons have had a flavour of genuine science about them. I would have enjoyed working out an equation for the best way to peel an orange, while studying the optimum way to make coffee or to spread marmalade on toast would both have involved subjects that are close to my heart. The latter request was rather spoiled, however, by the manufacturer wanting an equation to prove that theirs was the “best” marmalade.

Occasionally a request that I have accepted has even produced genuine science. One such was a call from the British Cheese Board to provide a formula for the perfect cheese sandwich. The experimental answer was that there is an optimum amount of cheese, above which no further flavour release happens when a sandwich is chewed. This surprising result has proved quite interesting to chefs and food scientists, and I have even produced an equation to describe it.

I fear that the real reason why the public seem interested in such equations is that they seeing them as slightly odd, to be giggled at behind the hand. The efforts of the headline writers often reflect this attitude. The journalists writing the stories have usually caught on to what I am trying to do, and have made a determined effort to help, but it is often the headline that has the major effect on the reader. From this point of view my crusade to make equations accessible has probably been a bit of a flop.

I am encouraged, though, by the large number of schoolchildren who have written to me, wanting advice on how to design a school project that would ultimately produce an equation. To these I am suggesting projects requested by publicity companies, but which I have been unwilling or unable to tackle. I have accumulated quite a list. My all-time favourite, still unsolved, is to calculate the perfect sitting position and launch strategy for throwing snack food into one’s mouth a la Homer Simpson without interfering with one’s view of the television. It would be a great project for a young potential physicist, and I still have hopes that equations describing such trivial situations may yet help others to understand what equations mean and what their true value is.

© This article is copyright Len Fisher. Please email Len Fisher to seek permission to reproduce part or all of the above article.

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