February 22, 2009

Never tell me the odds


C-3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.
Han Solo: Never tell me the odds.

I was listening to the This American Life podcast from last week. It was their Valentine's theme episode, so I am a little behind. The introduction segment was about David Kestenbaum and some other Harvard physicist students talking over coffee at the office. They noted that none of them had girlfriends. So, this being the world of physics, their next thought was to apply the power of mathematics to estimate the likelihood of finding a girlfriend.

They use a variation of the Drake equation, which is used to estimate the number of planets that have intelligent life on them (stick with me). You start with all planets and begin eliminating groups that can't support life to arrive at the remaining possibilities. They apply this line of thinking toward narrowing down the population to arrive at the number of possible girlfriends. Soon they are filling white boards with calculations.

  • So in the episode, they use the population of Boston as an example - 600,000.
  • So they cut it in half so they have the desired gender. - 300,000.
  • Then they narrow it to within 10 years, plus or minus of their own age - 100,000.
  • These being doctoral students, they wanted college graduates - 25,000.
  • Now, of course, we only want the single ones - 12,500.
  • Then we get to how many people are actually attractive to you. They guessed high at 1 in 5 women - 2,500.
  • 2,500 women in the Boston area, and this is before they consider anything personal (sense of humor, religious beliefs, outlook on the world, etc.)
As they are looking over the somewhat depressing odds, one of their professors walks in, and they start running the numbers for her. They start with the basic eliminations they had done for themselves, and then she has some specific ones to add. The man had to be taller than her (she was quite tall herself) and he had to be smarter than her (she was a Harvard physics professor). Her number basically came up as zero.

During the wrapup, David Kestenbaum talks about his thoughts during this whole mathematical discussion. Ignoring the odds, did he believe there was still someone out there. Yes, he believed there were people out there who would be right for him, but not just one. "If there were just one person out there - good luck! They could speak Chinese. What are the odds you're going to find them and a translator? You've got to believe there is more than one person"

"But if you do believe there is more than one person for you, you really might want to keep that belief to yourself sometimes. This may be one of those ideas you don't want to bring out of the classroom and into the real world."

They then give an example of one of their co-workers Alan Blumburg. He is talking to his future wife about how great it was that they were in love, and how happy they were to have found each other. She asked if he thought she was the only one for him. He answered, "I don't know if you are the only one for me, but I think you have to be like one in a hundred thousand."

At the time he thought it was romantic, thinking that there are almost 7 billion people on the planet - 100,000 sounded pretty rare. She did not. Though the math works out to be .0014% or a 1 in 700 chance, that is little solace. The wife says she doesn't really believe in the "one person", and she didn't expect her husband to, but why couldn't he set his scientific mind aside and just say it.

I have probably said some similarly dumb things to my wife. I know I made a CD for her (a mixed tape!) when we were dating that included the song Ghost of a Chance by Rush. The lyrics start out promising, talking about how amazingly small the chances are that we would find each other:

Like a million little doorways
All the choices we made

All the stages we passed through

All the roles we played


For so many different directions

Our separate paths might have turned

With every door that we opened

Every bridge that we burned


Somehow we find each other

Through all that masquerade

Somehow we found each other

Somehow we have stayed

In a state of grace


But then I throw a bit of a wrench in things with the chorus:

I don't believe in destiny
Or the guiding hand of fate

I don't believe in forever

Or love as a mystical state

I don't believe in the stars or the planets

Or angels watching from above

But I believe there's a ghost of a chance we can find someone to love

And make it last...


Oy, it is a wonder sometimes how we get together.

Interestingly enough, the first act of the podcast is a story about a man who falls for a woman who he met briefly while performing in China (If there were just one person out there - good luck! They could speak Chinese). A few years later he returns to China, and with nothing but a name, finds her, and they end up coming to the States and getting married.

They eventually face struggles. The novelty had worn off and the framework of their relationship was a world away. They often told the story of how they met and fell in love. It helped them and reinforced the fairy tale nature of their relationship. They fight through the tough times and make it through the other side. The husband observes, "People never ask how did you stay together. Everyone always asks how did you two meet?"

Act two, "Tom Girls" is a wrenching tale about transgender children. It fits into the theme of "one person out there that understands me", but is very different from the other stories. The third act is a funny bit by Mike Birbiglia called "My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend" and is a funny look back on the torture of teenage romance.

Worth a listen.

1 comment:

tami said...

I'm so glad I am not out there dating! I'm happy to be 'happy ever after'.