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by Cullen Murphy
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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).
Many have surmised, often on the basis of bitter personal experience, that having the social status of "dork" in the middle-school dominance hierarchy can have a palpable impact on academic achievement and self-esteem. That surmise has been subjected to vigorous cost/ benefit analysis by a Cornell University professor, John H. Bishop, in a monograph titled "Nerd Harassment, Incentives, School Priorities and Learning." This is not the place to review the full array of Bishop's calculations, but in the portion describing the determinants of student effort -- -- the final element, , represents "the marginal costs of efforts that result from the fear that one's classmates will think you are a 'nerd ... . teachers pet ... . or acting white.'"
Mathematical equations have begun to play a role even in the realm of post-death experience. A few years ago the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention divulged that it had come up with a methodology for determining what percentage of people in a given locale were likely candidates for hell; before anyone thought better of the idea, the board released county-by-county estimates for the entire United States. According to news reports, the estimates were derived from a "secret formula" that relied on grim assumptions about various sectarian and demographic groups. The precise methodology was never revealed.
One of the premises of Isaac Asimov's series of Foundation novels, set in the far future, is that the social and physical sciences will have developed to such a degree that all aspects of human behavior and social evolution can be not only rendered into mathematics but also projected ahead in time. In the books a self-appointed but benign cadre of psychohistorians keep watch for deviations from optimal behavior, poised to intervene. The calculations they monitor are minutely detailed.
He depressed a lever on his side of the desk and the room was in darkness. But only for a moment, since with a gradually livening flush, the two long walls of the room glowed to life. First, a pearly white, unrelieved, then a trace of faint darkness here and there, and finally, the fine neatly printed equations in black ...As this scene unfolds, the leader of the psychohistorians, the First Speaker, extends a bony finger and indicates a distant patch of numbers -- his own modest contribution to The Plan -- for the benefit of a young protégé: "'This,' he said, 'is mine.' A fine red line encircled two forking arrows and included six square feet of deductions along each path." As it happens, the whole Plan is eventually upset by someone with an unforeseen genetic mutation -- "genes that scream 'No,'" one might say.
Theoretical scientists may have abandoned certainty for chaos, but expect the next generation of real-world formulas to become more individualized and forward-looking. Baseball statisticians have made progress in this field already, with projection systems like Vladimir and Brock6, whose equations aspire to trace the future career trajectories of individual players. When will they enjoy their breakout years? When will they collapse? The Southern Baptist perdition formula begs to be refined, and surely will be, from a measure of aggregate probability into one of specific personal destiny. Original Spin currently includes a bar code with every article of clothing so that exact duplicates can be ordered when new clothing is needed. This primitive reordering system will no doubt become more anticipatory and pragmatic, and automatically factor advancing age and perhaps an intervening holiday season into a customer's personalized size trajectory.
When the time comes, I'll be the one with the bony finger indicating a distant patch of numbers -- 151/2/33 and 34/30. "This," I will say, "is mine."
Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. His most recent book is The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (1998).
Illustration by Terry Allen
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; If the Shoe Fits; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 14 - 17.