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July 21, 2003 7:16 AM   Subscribe

The answer to Life, The Universe and Everything is 42. Just kidding. In fact scientists say the answer is 4.
posted by stbalbach (43 comments total)

 
He was right all along!
posted by tss at 7:33 AM on July 21, 2003


That's a lot of crap for a Monday. Religion AND goofy math, plus silly comparisons between dog hearts and human toes or whatever that was. Wow.
posted by Outlawyr at 7:34 AM on July 21, 2003


Um, most of the "fours" or "one-fourths" cited there seem specifically derived from four as a power of two. So it seems "2" should at least get secondary billing as the answer-number:

4 2

So there.
posted by soyjoy at 7:39 AM on July 21, 2003


answer to Life
The site needs a life, all the links are dead, don't get the 42, but love the binary wallpaper: open, close, open, close open open open open, close(01010001)
posted by thomcatspike at 7:43 AM on July 21, 2003


Have you heard the news? Scientists have also proved that Metafilter is evil!
posted by bshort at 7:48 AM on July 21, 2003


Hmm... if there were any more hand waving in that article Dr. West would be in the jet stream. First of all, from the description it's not a theory, it's a rule of thumb. Second of all he relies on a lot of the hand waving I mentioned to arrive at the rule of thumb.

Humans are sixteen times the size of humans so their lifespan is twice that of a dog. That's not really true, at least in western countries the lifespan of a human is in the mid seventies while that of a dog is in the teens. Medical science is responsible for increasing the longevity of humans but it's also responsible for increasing the longevity of dogs too. So if you claim that ancient humans had the lifespan of modern dogs you're handwaving like a hummingbird flaps.

Even comparing the same species at the same time, i.e., one dog breed against another, the rule of thumb breaks down. Large breeds of dogs typically have shorter lifespans than larger breeds. Compare a Jack Russel Terrier versus a Labrador Retreiver for instance.
posted by substrate at 7:50 AM on July 21, 2003


"Average body size and lifetime are also related in the same ratio.

So in principle, if you are 16 times the size of your dog, you will live twice as long.

We do better than that, thanks to modern medicine, but the average lifetime of pre-European Maori was around 30.

Remarkably, combining these two relationships means that the heart of every mammal beats roughly the same number of times in its average lifetime - around 1.5 billion times - regardless of whether it is a dog or a human, a mouse or an elephant.

The implication is clear - we can't beat nature.


So ... does modern medicine beat nature or not?
posted by magullo at 7:50 AM on July 21, 2003


Everyone knows the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42 - but if you read the entire series several times over (around 50, in my case - I was trapped with the compendium book and nothing else to read for an entire summer at age 16) you'll notice that everytime someone mentions that they were bothered by never finding the Question Itself, the following question soon pops up after - "Think of a number, any number."

42.

Eddie the shipboard computer responded with that when Arthur complained about never finding the question. Marvin used it to prove to the matress Zem that he (Marvin) was by far the more intelligent of the two (Zem said '5' and Marvin informed him he was wrong).

Sorry, just something I noticed around reread . . . oh, number 42 I think.
posted by Ryvar at 7:54 AM on July 21, 2003


"So in principle, if you are 16 times the size of your dog, you will live twice as long."

Which, of course, is why elephants live over 3 times as long as humans, and blue whales on average live to the modest age of 326 years.

Die, numerology, die.
posted by spazzm at 7:56 AM on July 21, 2003


Actually, if you read the article, the answer isn't 4 but 3 + 1 which is obviously a whole different kettle of fish or horse of a different colour.
posted by jamespake at 7:59 AM on July 21, 2003


So in principle, if you are 16 times the size of your dog, you will live twice as long.

We do better than that, thanks to modern medicine, but the average lifetime of pre-European Maori was around 30.

Remarkably, combining these two relationships means that the heart of every mammal beats roughly the same number of times in its average lifetime - around 1.5 billion times - regardless of whether it is a dog or a human, a mouse or an elephant.


so does a human heart beat approximately 1.5 billion times in 30 years, or in 75?

And how does he arrive at the conclusion that humans are 16x the size of dogs? Maybe for little 10 lb dogs or something, but no way we're 16x the size of great danes...

and what substrate said.
posted by mdn at 8:01 AM on July 21, 2003


"There is a great deal of interest in the approach he has taken," Dr Wills said. "I don't know anybody who thinks it's nonsense."

Dr. Wills needs to get out and meet more people. This is all nonsense. So Dr Geoffrey West says basically life equals length, depth, width, and time. Well lah dee frickin dah! Meanwhile I'm still livin' in a VAN down by the RIVER! Applying that to the amount of times any given heart beats in any given mammal? Comparing lifespans of dogs to that of humans and coming up with one fourth?? He's comparing apples to ironing boards, coming up with oatmeal, and missing the broad side of a barn.

I thought having a doctorate meant that at the very least you needed to be good at math. Heck, I can add three to one and get a bunch of gobbledegook too! How come I can't call myself a doctor?
posted by ZachsMind at 8:03 AM on July 21, 2003


"Much of the theory is based on mathematics that can boggle the mind of anyone who struggled through School Certificate maths."

It strikes me that the mind of whoever wrote that article is probably boggled by addition and subtraction, too.
posted by spazzm at 8:07 AM on July 21, 2003


That guy's nose look like a Par 4.

Sorry, I'll leave now...
posted by sharksandwich at 8:07 AM on July 21, 2003


I don't have a dog - 16 * 0 =0. Oh my God!
posted by jamespake at 8:10 AM on July 21, 2003


Dr Willis is clearly too square...

*boom tish*
posted by nthdegx at 8:41 AM on July 21, 2003


I echo Zachsmind. Whoopty fuckin doo.
posted by scarabic at 8:45 AM on July 21, 2003


We do better than that, thanks to modern medicine, but the average lifetime of pre-European Maori was around 30

Average lifespan isn't a very useful measure though. Odds are it's averaging a bunch of people who died at 55-75 with a bunch of people who died at 0--3 and getting 30, even though not many people died at 30.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:56 AM on July 21, 2003


The MathWorld entry for 42.
posted by spazzm at 8:56 AM on July 21, 2003


I have heard similar theories for the numbers 3 and 5. I always find this stuff entertaining, but not really life-altering.

New Mexico's flag incorporates the zia symbol (scroll down), which includes 4 sets of 4, all tied to the "circle of life":

* The four seasons: spring, summer, fall & winter
* The four directions: north, west, south & east
* The four segments of the day: dawn, noon, dusk and midnight.
* The four divisions of life: childhood, youth, adulthood and old age.


which means the folks at Zia Pueblo beat Dr. West by a few thousand years.
posted by whatnot at 8:57 AM on July 21, 2003


The problem here is the reporter, who admits to being mathematically challenged. The theory "boggle[s] the mind of anyone who struggled through School Certificate maths". That doesn't mean it's rubbish.

The theory, or whatever it is, has been around for a long time and is called quarter-power scaling. For a better explanation of it, and more mentions of Doc West, see this Scientific American piece. Quotation: For decades, scientists have puzzled over the fact that a wide range of an organism's traits--from its average life span and number of offspring to the typical duration of its pregnancy and its pulse--vary according to its mass (M) raised to some multiple of 1/4, regardless of its outward design. The puzzle is why it isn't 1/3, which is what would be implied by the 3-dimensional differences in size. The theory of West et al is that the vascular networks inside organisms expand in a fractal manner that adds another dimension to the scaling factor. The aim is to add a quantitative dimension to the theory of natural selection. Sci Am says about the same thing as the NZ reporter, though, that the math is "not easy."
posted by beagle at 9:01 AM on July 21, 2003


While we're amusing ourselves with numerology, why not try this old classic?
posted by spazzm at 9:08 AM on July 21, 2003


Remember that five is right out.
posted by mragreeable at 9:14 AM on July 21, 2003


Not 432? Oh wait, that's the cosmic key.
posted by hobbes at 9:58 AM on July 21, 2003


I thought the answer to life was 420
posted by maceo at 10:07 AM on July 21, 2003


What Beagle said. The Santa Fe Institute are not exactly a bunch of morons and astrologers, it's just "SIMON COLLINS, science reporter." SFI is a collection of some of the best of the best from every discipline that have gotten together to study Complexity (Chaos Theory, Emergence, etc...) as it pops up within and across all their respective areas of study. It's one of the few research centers in existence where you can find economists collaborating with biologists collaborating with physicists collaborating with computer scientists collaborating with mathmeticians...
posted by badstone at 10:15 AM on July 21, 2003


Those fools! They changed the outcome by measuring it!
posted by Smart Dalek at 10:30 AM on July 21, 2003


>Much of the theory is based on mathematics that can boggle the mind of anyone who struggled through School Certificate maths.

In other words, we think you're too stupid, and we know that we are too stupid to attempt to tell you the what these *mathematics* are.

ZachsMind - apples to ironing boards... brilliant!
posted by woil at 10:44 AM on July 21, 2003


For some great information about the history and significance of numbers, I can recommend BBC Radio 4's Another 5 Numbers. Each program is 15 minutes long and requires the RealOne player.
posted by crayfish at 10:45 AM on July 21, 2003


I immediately recognized the theory that all animals, regardless of size, have roughly the same number of heartbeats during their life (large animals have slower heart rate and live longer). This story made the rounds a couple of years ago – does anyone else remember it? It's an interesting theory, but I believe it was denounced as unscientifical in the end. The heart rates and lifespans for different animals just didn't fit the theory.
posted by Termite at 11:15 AM on July 21, 2003


Outlawyr, ZachsMind, woil, relax.... This is just another power law. Just as the inverse square law pops up all over (mainly due to the simple geometry of spreading over areas) in physical systems, this is a different power law that seems to pop up in many biological systems. Applying mathematics to biological systems is necessarily extremely complex, and it would turn this news article into a large journal article that noone in the general public would wade through to include it. (And it certainly wouldn't work as a FPP. How can you have a violent knee jerk reaction to a journal article?)
posted by badstone at 11:37 AM on July 21, 2003


Order yourself a collection of papers on the subject.
posted by badstone at 11:43 AM on July 21, 2003


I thought 1.16 was the magic ratio. Donald Duck wouldn't fucking lie to me, would he?!
posted by Hildago at 11:48 AM on July 21, 2003


To echo what beagle and badstone wrote, this is definitely a case in which you can blame the messenger. This is bad science reporting, not bad science. If you're really interested in what West has to say, it seems that the most concise and relevant article would be Science 284:1677-1679, entitled "The fourth dimension of life: Fractal geometry and allometric scaling of organisms". This is a serious scientific article in a well-respected peer-reviewed journal, and in the four years since it's been published, it's been cited by other scientists over 100 times. The math is, in fact, pretty damn hairy. Went completely over my head, at least. The fact that it's been published and cited would be a good indication, ZachsMind, that West is good at math.

As for the skepticism that's been expressed here towards the 1/4 scaling phenomenon, you all should be a little more hesitant about expressing your disdain. I'm not familiar with the scaling, but it seems to be widely recognized and accepted (though poorly presented in the nzherald article). It might be a good idea to do a little reading before rejecting the idea outright. West cites a few books in the article that I linked to above. Unfortunately, none of this stuff seems to be free online, so you'll be stuck going to a real library if you want to follow through. Any college library should have Science, at least. Actually, here's a good page from one of West's colleagues.

As beagle wrote, the 1/4 scaling isn't West's idea: he simply did the math that makes sense of it.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:09 PM on July 21, 2003


I agree—this finding should be of interest to the amateur chaos-complexity theorists of the Net. This rests on the observation that organisms of different sizes consist of more or less cells of the same size, and are thus actually networks of greater or lesser complexity. The magic of four is that it expresses the maximally efficient form of the complexity as it has evolved. Whether or not a death clock beats in the heart of every mammal seems beside the point.
posted by rschram at 12:47 PM on July 21, 2003


This website should throw a wrench into this.. guy's work... I know I'm quite a bit bigger than the American Box Turtle.
posted by Nauip at 2:58 PM on July 21, 2003


"There is a great deal of interest in the approach he has taken," Dr Wills said.

"I don't know anybody who thinks it's nonsense."
Yes, but I think it's safe to assume this guy doesn't have that many friends.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 4:43 PM on July 21, 2003


4 is the number of life? Ironically, in Chinese 4 is the number of death. Many buildings don't even have a fourth floor, and here in Taiwan so many 4th-floor apartments are so cheap foreigners (or "foureigners"?) who aren't so concerned or even unaware of the connotations are often found living on that floor.
posted by Poagao at 8:05 PM on July 21, 2003


Parrots. Tortoises.
posted by rushmc at 4:54 AM on July 22, 2003


mammals.
posted by mdn at 5:00 AM on July 22, 2003


Within each class of species, such as mammals, the size of the last stage in the chain, the capillaries, is the same.

Okay, parrots, ostriches.
posted by rushmc at 9:04 AM on July 22, 2003


I've said it before and I'll say it again:

4 2
posted by soyjoy at 1:27 PM on July 22, 2003


From the "Bart Sees His Future at Indan Casino, Lisa is President Episode":

HOMER, Counting steps: Four score and five, four score and six, four score and SEVEN. Raises pickaxe to begin digging.

MARGE: Homer, what are you doing?!

HOMER: This is where the map says the gold is buried.

MARGE: But you made up that map and you just started counting at a random place!
posted by squirrel at 10:59 PM on July 22, 2003


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