Crunching the Numbers

I’ve talked a lot about romance here already – which really means that I’ve talked a lot of smack. I’ve made a point not to talk about math – partially because my parents recently had an anniversary and I needed help adding 17 and 17 (34!). If you’re shaking your head and groaning – even inwardly – I am too. I stopped liking math along the way, when it became a competition and when I had a spectacularly bad teacher; it’s a common story. Every now and then someone pops up saying, “Math is fun!!,” but it’s very hard to believe it, even if that person is Einstein, Bill Nye, or Richard Feynman. Lately that person has been Hannah Fry, who wrote a tiny book, The Mathematics of Love: you might be able to see how I snookered myself into reading it.

Surprisingly, it’s a good book – partially because there are very few formulas in it – and I read it in one evening. Fry starts with acknowledging the feelings of futility that the dating game engenders within us with a particularly extreme example: mathematician Peter Backus figured out that there were fewer women in London willing to date him (26) than intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations (10,000). This paper, unsurprisingly, was titled “Why I Don’t Have a Girlfriend.” I, too, at times have felt the need to search other worlds for a life partner, but Fry tells us that Backus was simply being pessimistic and inflated his numbers to a more reasonable level. At the time of publishing, Backus was married.

On that strong basis – that love need not come complete with tentacles and eyes in strange places – Fry continues, extolling the virtues of math as applied to beauty, meeting people, wedding planning, and online dating. The chapter on online dating had my particular attention, as I quite recently joined a site myself. (‘It’s a jungle out there’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.)

That particular section boils down to two key points: often the math behind these programs uses individual data to figure out how a couple might be together, which leads to faulty results; and that having a profile picture that isn’t too beautiful or too ugly is better than having one of you at your stunning best. It’s the second point that really makes me think. Essentially, looking really good in your picture can deter people, because they assume that you are already getting slammed with messages from other hopefuls. If you look good but not conventionally lovely, others will figure that they have a chance. It makes sense, if you tip your head to one side.

I’ll keep this book on my shelf; I might reference back to it on occasion, if only for the footnotes. Some of these additions are unintelligible: “These networks are known as scale-free because – unlike normal distributions or Poisson distributions – the underlying power-law doesn’t have a typical parameter (like the mean or standard deviation) that defines its scale” (72). But some of them are downright fabulous: “I’d like to explain it properly, but it really does get quite complicated. And let’s face it, we’ve all got lives to be getting on with” (82). That’s what I really want out of a book about math: a book that tells me what I want to know without making me do the work, one that lets me get on with my life – my love life.


If you want more of these fun-math-times, here’s Fry’s TED Talk.

And here’s a very picky man’s list of dealbreakers (which includes “you pet wandering mystery cats with no regard for toxoplasmosis” and “you have tattoos you can’t see without a mirror”).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s