Drake Equation explains lack of aliens, girlfriends


66 Responses to “Drake Equation explains lack of aliens, girlfriends”

  1. polarized_range says:

    I think the problem is that he apparently randomly samples one Londoner per night regardless of age or sex. Even if he is only using bars to meet people it’s a strong Bayesian filter. Also according to http://www.foxcharlotte.com/dpps/news/dpgo-Peter-Backus-uses-math-to-explain-girlfriend-woes-fc-20100112_5537488 he does currently have a girlfriend.

  2. digitalcole says:

    I think he forgot a step as in the level of alcohol consumed by ether/both him and/or the prospective girl. It could increase his chances say, ten fold.

    On a serious side 1 in 285,000. That’s better odds then the lottery in California, so there is hope.

  3. Shay Guy says:

    I’m sure I’ve seen this before. Like, ages ago.

  4. Daedalus says:

    Yeah, this was a TAL thing, too. They took the angle of “Is there only one person for every person, statistically?”

    I can’t wait for the stat-dorks at the OK Cupid blog to get wind of this. YAY!

  5. Marchhare says:

    The way this is written he does sound at best a bit detached. But I’m sure he doesn’t think that having a uni degree is an absolute necessary condition on his dating someone. But having that degree does raise the probability that the woman will have other characteristics that are ends in themselves (for him). I mean, no one thinks a uni degree is anything more than instrumentally valuable in these sorts of cases, right?

  6. Anonymous says:

    His math is off. He uses the “rate of formation of people in the UK” and multiplies that by, among other things, the fraction of women that are age appropriate. However, this is an incorrect formulation. If he’s using rate of formation of people he should be multiplying by the duration of his age appropriateness time window.

    Since it’s not that some fraction of people being born (and by extension growing one year older) are within a given age range but rather that the number of people in a given age range will be equal to the product of the rate of production of people (assuming it’s relatively constant) and the length of the age range. This is more obvious if you look at the units, people / year * years = people.

    This translates into a factor of 55 difference in the final result.

  7. Nylund says:

    This calculation reminds me of what it feels like to look for a date as a well-educated liberal atheist in non-Austin Texas.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I love the implicit geeky, humour, here, but of course it isn’t all that grim.

    Because this is not how pair-bonding works. This is not how people, or societys, work.

    People meet and re-meet, and split up and get back together and generally change over time. What we want, and like and see changes continually. Really, you have just as much of a chance finding that Very Special Someone at 25 as you do at 35, but most of that depends not on the statistics, but on you.

    And those odds are just not quantifiable.

  9. maxoid says:

    i’m certain i’ve seen this before some years back, accompanied by several competing theories and calculations from others, and an update that the author has, in fact, found a mate. a little searching around didn’t yield, though. maybe it was some other guy?

    also, looking at his picture and considering his CV, i’d be damned surprised if only 1 in 20 women find him attractive. just saying.

  10. Michael_GR says:

    It’s been done, over and over again. Here’s the same idea, only written in 1999:

    Then there was The Big Bang Theory episode where Howard comes up with a similar equation. Lastly XKCD came up with a similar equation for number of people having sex in a certain radius: http://xkcd.com/563/

  11. Anonymous says:

    @maxoid#18 — yeah, if only one out of 20 women find him attractive then there’s something else amiss, unfortunately most likely with him.

  12. iolaximun says:

    i read the article ( jan. 15, 2010) on our local paper here in singapore and i found it ridiculous to have such calculation… and given a thought, mr. backus, why don’t you give yourself a break and travel then maybe you’ll meet a special one out there…

  13. Brainspore says:

    Can some math geek put the two together and figure out the odds of nabbing an alien girlfriend? Logic tells me it seems unlikely, but every sci-fi franchise from “Star Trek” to “Avatar” tells me that the universe is filled with smokin’ hot babeliens who can’t wait to get their appendages on an earthman.

  14. Anonymous says:

    This is why it is important to also do empirical studies.

  15. straponego says:

    First off, congrats to this fellow. I’m quite confident he’ll be inundated with interested females, and before the rush wears off, if he’s still single he won’t be able to blame anyone but himself. Besides, his post reads mostly as a joke– I read him as less desparate than funny.

    That said, if we pretend for a moment that we’re critiquing his theory seriously: I see several obvious flaws. For example, he assumes that all his variables are independent. I’d assert that his standards of physical attractiveness, especially given his admitted biases, are going to be largely influenced by his other variables– education, city of residence, etc. Further, the type of people you meet (and pay attention to) is largely determined by your preferences and lifestyle. No matter how big the city, people who like the same things are eerily likely to find one another.

    And, as far as f L , the time in years he’s been alive… yeah, there’s probably a nice curve for that, but where you fall on that curve is largely dependent on what you’ve learned and what you want.

    His equation, and Drake’s, are interesting but largely dependent on variables that we’re just can’t yet narrow down. His equation would be a good way to ensure contentedness in minimum time… but life just ain’t that simple.

    I reckon he knows this, and therefore, I grant him a geek ^5. Enjoy, sir!

  16. zyodei says:

    Without dwelling on the obvious point that this math demonstrates why he has a girlfriend in more ways than one, there’s another important point:

    It’s bad economic analysis.

    If I were a potential employee reading this, I certainly would NOT hire him based on this.

    Economics, or any sort of applied mathematics, is not about crunching numbers. That’s easy. We have computers for this.

    They are about selecting the proper inputs, understanding what the numbers really mean, contextualizing the results for real world meaningfulness. It is about teasing the story out of numbers, a story that is both enlightening and true.

    Seeing the conclusion he comes to, that there are only 26 available women in the whole damned city of London, if he had a real gut common instinct for numbers, he would know something was off, throw the results away, and start over. But he doesn’t.

    The problem is that he makes all sorts of arbitrary assumptions, and treats them as facts. He would find 1/20 of young women attractive? And 1/20 of young women would find him attractive? Where does he get this from? Wouldn’t it be safe to assume there would be a high degree of overlap between these two populations? (he will find geek girls attractive, they will find him attractive – or not).

    Plus, there’s the whole aspect of justifying his negativity with numbers, and creating a chimera of statistics to avoid responsibility for his own condition – really terrible traits in any employee.

    Buddy – there are probably around the tens of thousands of women who you can have a really great time with. It’s all about having the personality that women are drawn to, and putting yourself in the places where the really interesting women are. Hint: It’s not the pubs.

  17. greengestalt says:

    Maybe there’s something out there that hates all other life and looks for signs of it and then sends either a “Berzerker” or a “Von Neuman Probe” to destroy it?

    And maybe the “Modern Women who seek to destroy all men” have “Feminized” and “Lesbianed” the women too much along with our “PC hate the male” kkkulture that everyone’s needs/desires is too F*cked up to really know a good match or have a good relationship? You don’t think “Woman? Woomaaannnn!” and then bond with her, the work being to have both your personalities adjust to each other, and the expectation. Nope, too many people looking for a “True Love”, a “Soul Mate” but they really want a mirror of their own vanity that changes as they do to their expectations and few personalities can do that.

  18. sleze says:

    I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that because he is the type of guy to formulate why he doesn’t have a girlfriend is the reason why he doesn’t have a girlfriend.

  19. teapot says:

    I wish there was an equation to explain why sometimes its best to go “ha – that’s funny”, and then move on.

  20. SamSam says:

    I’m guessing he did this to make fun of, or point out flaws in, the Drake Equation.

    After all, even if we make all those numbers way more generous, we’d probably still calculate there’s only a one in a million chance of finding a girlfriend on any given night.* Logically, this should mean that you’d need to spend a million nights looking for a suitable girl. This would mean that no one would ever find a girlfriend.

    Since that last statement is false, the equation must be wrong. QED.

    *Not actually calculated.

  21. boxlightbox says:

    I’d swear a contributor to This American Life had done the exact same lack-of-girlfriend equation at MIT with his physics buddies 10 years ago.

  22. jim says:

    He works in Coventry, though, which is a good 80 miles outside London. If he lives in London, he’s burning through a pretty good transit budget getting to and from work/school, so why would he care if his potential GF is in London proper? Seems to me he’s eliminating several million potential mates from his equation unnecessarily. Maybe he’d meet a nice girl in Birmingham and be closer to work?

  23. Nadreck says:

    I wish that all of the people complaining about his poor analysis skills would learn to read a problem statement. He says that he finds one in ten women attractive NOT one in twenty.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Stop trying so hard.

    There’s always the chaos theory.

  25. andyhavens says:

    The secret to happiness is to strive, strive! ever harder, ever onward, ever upward to meet and exceed your expectations. Note: this is exponentially easier if you drastically lower your expectations first.

  26. Anonymous says:

    See. he’s having trouble in London. I get his stats and all. It minorly depressing trying to find 1 in a million at the best of times. He should try living in a small town. or even a little village. At least the chances are that there [i]is[/i] someone awesome in London. There are worse situations.

  27. Anonymous says:

    If you find yourself without a partner for long periods of time, you begin to rationalize reasons for our admittedly painful situation.

    The best thing to do in this situation is CHANGE YOURSELF, that is all that you can change and if you are not seeing results, then that is what needs attention.

    Be honest with yourself or, better yet, see a therapist so that they can help you identify what is holding you back. I wish you the best in your search.

    • blueelm says:

      Wow he’s quite cute and clearly interesting. He must be an absolute asshole to have so much trouble.

      Also, did he just inadvertently use boingboing as a dating site now?


      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        He must be an absolute asshole to have so much trouble.

        Or maybe being a PhD candidate and Teaching Fellow doesn’t leave him time to date.

        • Tdawwg says:

          Speaking from personal experience (my own not least), it’s likely more of a both-and, rather than an either/or: assholishness and PhDicity are often comorbid in a given specimen. :D

      • Anonymous says:

        Wow he’s quite cute and clearly interesting. He must be an absolute asshole to have so much trouble.

        Nah, it’s pretty easy for mild-mannered nerdy/shy guys who are bad with small talk to go really long times between relationships; think Steve Carrell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. That pretty much describes me, and I’m 33 and haven’t had a girlfriend since I was 23 (she’s still a good friend and can verify that I’m not an asshole!) Of course this might not apply to that guy–maybe he’s a big extrovert, in which case being an asshole (or a really extreme workaholic, or a guy with asperger’s or something) would be a little more likely…

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      If you find yourself without a partner for long periods of time, you begin to rationalize reasons for our admittedly painful situation.

      Single =/= zomgwereallgonnadierunhide.

  28. Halloween Jack says:

    I wonder if this guy did a Drake Equation analysis of how many people on blogs like BB would criticize him under the assumption that he’s being completely serious.

  29. murnshaw says:

    The problem with thought experiments like these is that they don’t take into account all of the variables. In this instance the percentage of women who find him attractive would vary based on an obscene number of variables, such as:

    -Aging of the female population would bring more potential girlfriends onto the market faster than they would leave.

    -Aging of the male in question would open up previously closed markets for potential girlfriends (e.g. Women who love older men.

    -Experience through repeated exposure in the market to locate gf niches previously unaware of.

    -Social trends which would alter general desirability of certain male archetypes (e.g. rise of Geekdom as a desirable male archetype)

    -Menstrual cycles affecting a potential gf’s preferences in men.

    Bottom line: These exercises are amusing self-fulfilling prophecies that take very little into account.

  30. Xopher says:

    Anyone know why the quoted text is all frelled?

  31. Moriarty says:

    I’m going to make a Drake equation calculating the probability that a given Drake equation isn’t bullshit.

  32. ZTurpin says:

    If he were American, those would be the odds he would die of a hernia in a year, apparently:


    Also, I did some poking around, and he looks pretty young (he got his BA in 2000). He calculates that his odds of merely meeting an attractive 30-something woman with a degree in London are 0.0014%, or about 1 in 714. Well, again if he were an American, those would be his odds of being a widower:


    He may be a little bit too old for those odds, but he has something to be thankful for, at the very least: he’s not American.

  33. Anonymous says:

    1 in 285,000?… so you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance… YEAH!

  34. Noodle says:

    People, it’s a funny.

  35. agoodsandwich says:

    This is interesting: I read this and thought, “This is funny. He has a sense of humor.”

    A lot of you read this and thought, “This is sad. He is a bad person.”

    What does this mean? Do you realize this is largely a joke?

  36. airshowfan says:

    Firstly, a lot of you say that the number of single [people of the desired gender] around your age shrinks as you get older. You’re forgetting this:


    That having been said… The analysis blogged about here is not serious. It’s meant to be funny. I am all for trying to analyze humor, and for trying to pick apart bad arguments’ flawed assumptions, but not both at the same time! It should be clear that it’s meant to be funny BECAUSE the analysis is so bad. (Especially since he has a girlfriend). As Zyodei came within an inch of pointing out in comment #22, the funny part is that “he makes all sorts of arbitrary assumptions, and treats them as facts … justifying his negativity with numbers, and creating a chimera of statistics to avoid responsibility for his own condition”. I found that entertaining, not infuriating. (And I think Zyodei did too, but I’m not 100% sure. Hard to find sarcasm in text sometimes).

  37. boghall says:

    Interesting but not original. There was an NPR item some years back and I believe the same basic argument may have appeared earlier.
    I amused friends with the very same calculation at a party in 1993 (I’m sure they’d validate that). As far as I recall it was spontaneous (i.e. not on the basis of having heard it before) – though I’d bet someone could authenticate an earlier version.
    However he has really only touched the surface. I arrived at a negative number! (For example, he failed to take into account any ‘tried but failed’ girlfriends!)
    Obviously the conclusion is that chances are you’ll end up with someone you wouldn’t immediately categorise as right for you… or who instantly fancies you.

  38. Man With A Lantern says:

    Can someone check his math? I thought 42 was the Ultimate Answer.

    But perhaps that’s just because I’m a romantic.

  39. Ian70 says:

    Oddly enough, this same concept was explored by the Canadian comedy troupe The Frantics (of “Boot to the Head” fame) back in their radio show and TV days of the mid-80′s.
    A white-trash character played by Peter Wildman used a pocket calculator to figure out just how many women in the world would be attracted to him; after excluding those who were too old, too young, too far away, were not into demolition derby and who couldn’t open beer bottles with her teeth. The last line was priceless: “Wow, wait until I call up fat Shirley and tell her she’s the only girl in the world for me!”

  40. stygyan says:

    There’s a whole episode on ‘How I met your mother’ first season talking about this. Really.

  41. Anonymous says:

    Cut the guy some slack– it’s all about fun, and you got to admit, it’s provocative.

  42. Anonymous says:

    The women who would find someone like this AREN’T hanging out in bars for the most part. They might have gotten dragged out with friends, or are at a hen party or similar, but they’re not going there unless they have to.

    Anybody who would go to this much trouble to justify why he doesn’t have a girlfriend is a geek of a fairly high magnitude.

    That’s okay — there’s plenty of geeky girls — but they’ll be somewhere OTHER than a bar…try volunteering…community groups…the library…lectures at museums.

    It’s like the old joke about the guy who loses a tenner in a dark alley, but is looking for it down at the corner because the light is better there.

  43. Anonymous says:

    This guy, in his calculations, finds 1/20 of all women attractive, and estimates 1/20 of all women will find him attractive.
    A. 1 out of 20? You need to lower your standards.
    B. If you are in fact so ugly that only 1 our of 20 women find you attractive, you REALLY need to lower your standards.
    If you change both of those variables from 0.05 to 0.5, your girlfriend-finding probability increases a hundredfold.

  44. 13tales says:

    Oh dear.

    Whilst I’ve never met him, I think I’ve gleaned some ideas about why this guy doesn’t have a girlfriend.

    For starters, his convictions about women he could have a relationship with (okay, it’s for the sake of an equation, but still) all relate to externalities – university education, physical attractiveness, age – but say nothing of character.

    Also, his standards for physical attractiveness (5%? He finds only finds one age-appropriate woman in 20 attractive enough to consider a relationship??) seem prohibitively high, whilst admitting that he’s not exactly a male model himself.

    I could say more about the relationship chances of people who spend their time bemoaning the lack of eligible women via. maths on the internet, rather than upping those chances by getting out and meeting people, but I won’t.

    • Nadreck says:

      Mr. Backus uses the word “attractive” without any explanation (presumably for the sake of brevity) of what exactly he means by that. I find it highly amusing that you, and several of the other posters, cannot conceive of this meaning anything other than physical beauty. Does he find a sense of humour “attractive” or a utilitarian moral outlook “attractive”? Nothing in his post to say.

      Someone’s obsessed with physical beauty but it isn’t this guy!

    • Anonymous says:

      Basically you’re saying this guy needs to double barrel the bottom barrel.

  45. alisong76 says:

    University education does not neccessarily equal smarts and/or common sense, nor does the lack of one neccessarily preclude these attributes. Don’t get me started on the “attractive” bit.

    One thing’s for sure – I’m definitely not going to go out with him.

  46. Anonymous says:

    @13tales: He’s saying that only 5% of women would find him attractive not that he finds only 5% of the women attractive. He’s not being presumptuous he’s making a misogynistic assumption that most women are shallow.

    • jere7my says:

      Anonymous #6, he’s saying both: “Let’s be generous and say I find 1 in 20, or 5% of age-appropriate women in London with a university degree physically attractive.” I think he’s being a bit tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing, rather than actually bemoaning his fate, but if he thinks 1 in 20 is “generous” then his standards are ridiculously high.

  47. W. James Au says:

    The fact that he considers a university degree an absolute requirement means he’s a prick, which lowers his chances considerably. The fact that he engaged in this neurotic little calculation suggests he’s a nebbishy prick, which lowers them even more.

  48. liamo says:

    His equation doesn’t really have much in common with the Drake Equation other than that they are both examples of Fermi estimates

  49. Fahrenheit says:

    So much criticism on a guy who likes
    to play with natural selection patterns. Why ?
    I admit some parameter ratios are a bit outlandish
    but I don’t think this guy is so ugly and repulsive.
    He is gone through loneliness for plenty of years
    and he’s seen the relativity of “things”.
    All things (even the most chaotic) behave in
    patterns. And that guy tried to trace this pattern.
    Maybe this brings an unpleasant feeling of
    predictability in couple matching. But this is NOT
    a deliberate conscious slap on the desired randomness
    in everyday-living affairs. It’s just a fantastic
    exercise of statistical analysis with a bit of
    child imagination. So, why do you step so hard
    on this guy ?

    (pardon me for any phrasal mistakes I might’ve done
    I come from Greece …)

  50. Xopher says:

    Hmm, I should divide those chances by 10, because while I’m attracted to a fairly broad range of men, only 10% of them are even interested in my gender. OTOH, this is the New York City Metropolitan Area, so the number is probably much higher (gay men migrate here from the Midwest for reasons including both environmental pressure and prey density); could be as high as 25%.

    Because men (for the most part) really ARE shallow, I’d estimate the number of gay men who are attracted to me as effectively zero (since a taste for men who look like me is sufficiently rare (in men, not women) that a world population of only 6.7 billion is unlikely to include one man with the trait).

    Since I myself am a man, and while less shallow than average still have certain physical requirements for a partner (one innocuous requirement: he can’t be too heavy for me to lift, but that’s more of a safety thing, and part of the reason I work out), the pool is reduced still further.

    Want to know how shallow men are? When they control an entire social environment, a fairly strict looks-based caste system takes effect. For me to so much as speak to one of the Ken dolls in a gay bar would be considered a serious breach of etiquette, even if what I say is “god, not this song again” or “hey, could you slide that bowl of Chex-mix down here?” I’m supposed to know my place and not presume to speak to the royalty unless they deign to speak to me first. Not that I’m actually interested in Ken dolls, but the caste system is based on extremely conventional standards of beauty.

    Of course, the fact that I believe all this and don’t even bother going out any more (it’s pretty much work, gym, grocery store, and (rarely) to visit friends) is probably a significant factor as well!

    And yes, this piece is an intentional joke. Even my own comment above is only half serious. Analyzing his assumptions and accusing him of misogyny is just silly.

    And yeah, I’d fuck him. But he likes girls. :-)

  51. EscapingTheTrunk says:

    If he’d truly given up hope, he would have used Fermi’s Paradox.

Leave a Reply