If the Shoe Fits- 99.04

In search of a formula for everything


FOR most of my adult existence the only data that have mattered when buying new clothes are the dimensions for "neck/arm" and for "waist/inseam." These dimensions, 151/2/33 and 34/30, by now possess an almost sacral quality -- they are the Avogadro's Number and the Planck's (More or Less) Constant of my sartorial life, arrived at with technology no more sophisticated than a tailor's fabric measure.
It seems so quaint now, in an age of whole-body-scanning systems. A prototype of such a system was unveiled a few years ago by the Computerized Anthropometric Research and Design Laboratory, a division of the U.S. Air Force, which hopes to create better-fitting uniforms and protective equipment. The Air Force system uses laser beams to scan as many as two million body-surface reference points. The transfer of such technology to the civilian sector may have already begun. A swimsuit maker called Second Skin uses a scanner to construct personalized beachwear based on "up to 28 different vital body statistics." Levi Strauss & Co. has installed in many stores what it calls the Original Spin Program; computerized morphological data are transmitted to a team of cutters and stitchers, who within a few days send back an individualized garment -- "jeans that scream 'Yes,'" in the words of Levi Strauss. The contours of the human form will soon be susceptible in every particular to remote probes and supple algorithms, down to the last hollow and hump, the last ripple and ridge.

"The rules that describe nature seem to be mathematical," the physicist Richard Feynman pointed out in a famous series of lectures some decades ago. Indeed, Feynman went on, mathematical character amounts to "a kind of miracle." Feynman gave the example of gravity, whose force varies according to the inverse square of the distance between two bodies. The quest for the underlying mathematics of the physical universe has been much publicized, and has sometimes led into outlandish territory. But it is the parallel quest for the underlying mathematics of ordinary experience that has truly become pervasive in our lives.

Is there anything we won't try to render in terms of mathematics? I don't mean the straightforward stuff, involving basic dimensions -- for instance, elapsed time since the Big Bang ( according to Einstein, where c is the speed of light, G is Newton's gravitational constant, and is the energy density of the universe), or the extent in square meters of a human being's body-surface area (), or the length of time required to heat the interior of mashed potatoes in a microwave oven (a formula too complicated to display). I have in mind, rather, calculations involving social processes, individual behavior and performance, even ethical norms.

To judge from studies Ihave come across, mathematical scrutiny has recently been trained on such diverse matters as the propensity of twins to experience failed marriages ("Genetic Influence on Risk of Divorce" -- Psychological Science); the bizarre ability of cats to tolerate plunges from vast heights better than from middling ones ("How Cats Survive Falls From New York Skyscrapers" -- Natural History); the worldwide validity of the six-degrees-of-separation phenomenon, as epitomized by the Kevin Bacon game ("Collective dynamics of 'small-world' networks" -- Nature); and the roles of debasement, manipulation, and the threat of infidelity in the success of long-term monogamy ("Mate Retention Tactics in Married Couples" -- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

I have seen formulas encapsulating a Generosity Index, a Richter Scale for Risks, a Currie Scale for Health Warnings, and a Georgia County Moral Tragedy Index. A professor at Princeton has devised an equation for determining the quality of French red-wine vintages long before they are drinkable. Specialists under the auspices of the National Bureau of Economic Research have produced equations for determining the optimal size of a modern nation-state. The Texas-based Semantics Research Corporation promotes an Utterance Crispness Index, which defines the crispness of any statement as the quotient of "number of utterances containing no form of the verb to be" divided by "total number of utterances" -- a maximum score of 1 representing ultimate, perhaps unbearable, crispness. (Hemingway's novels score 0.64; Bill Clinton's grand-jury testimony scores 0.24.)

New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has endorsed a new Urban Happiness Quotient to monitor trends in the city's mental and social health, now that he thinks they're improving. The formula runs as follows: UHQ=(Oa x Sb x Ec)/N, where O consists of a statistical basket of "outcomes" (for example, infant mortality rate, murder rate); S consists of a basket of "supports" (spending on education, spending on the police); E consists of various "economic factors" (trends in per capita income, average hourly wage); and N consists of numerically expressed "needs" (number of homeless people, number of boarded-up buildings).

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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