A serious turn makes a smart fit

Effort to squeeze maths into problem of parallel parking earns praise. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 29, 2009

It may seem like just another flaky equation cooked up by an academy in the thrall of a dumbed-down media.

But a scholar who developed a “formula for perfect parking” has been praised for his rigour by a critic of serious-looking formulae that serve public-relations aims.

Simon Singh, the science writer, is an outspoken critic of such formulae in his capacity as president of the mathematical sciences section of the British Science Association.

He has warned that academics who develop equations that serve commercial PR purposes can create confusion between work that is of genuine scholarly value and pseudo-research and can fuel a public perception that they are “bonkers”, “waste money on pointless research” and “will deliver results according to who pays”.

But he stepped in to defend Simon Blackburn, professor of mathematics at Royal Holloway, University of London, after he unveiled a formula for perfect parallel parking.

While the clever-looking equation has all the hallmarks of a PR job – it is funded by Vauxhall and was linked to parking problems over the busy Christmas period – Dr Singh said that in fact it was a “neat” equation that “shows how maths works on an everyday level”.

He added that the formula was “mathematically rigorous” and “did not make an impossible claim”. “I don’t have to get annoyed – that’s a relief,” he said.

The formula, which received widespread media coverage, works out precisely how big a space needs to be for a car to park in it and the geometry of where a driver should turn.

“Everyone has had the experience of ignoring a space because you’re not sure if you can fit in or not. This formula solves that problem,” Professor Blackburn says in the press release publicising his equation.

Professor Blackburn told Times Higher Education that he had been careful to ensure that his effort was not a “flaky formula”.

He said Vauxhall approached him and asked if he could “do something that has both maths and parking in it”.

“I got involved only when I was sure I could come up with something that had some meaning behind it,” he said.

Declining to reveal how much he had been paid for the job, he said: “I would love to tell you, but I can’t because of commercial confidentiality.”

Ben Goldacre, a doctor, columnist and author of Bad Science, said it was a “real shame that in popular discussion funding source is the most common criticism of any piece of research”.

He added that while industry funding was not a “methodological flaw” in itself, it was a “risk factor for something being dodgy”. With this in mind, he said, it was “even more worthwhile than usual” to examine such research “to see what flaws it might have”.


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