The Man Using Equations To Find Love
Mathematician Bobby Seagull has tried to use numbers to solve his romantic difficulties. Is he on to something?
by Ellie Hunt
They say love is a numbers game. Bobby Seagull – the mathematician who rose to fame as a finalist on University Challenge in 2017 – took them literally.
A few years ago, he sat down to try to work out why he had been so unlucky in life. “I was 32 or 33, I was single, I loved maths and science – I thought: ‘Can I use maths and science to help me?’ It was a genuine, earnest attempt.”
Inspired by Peter Backus – a Manchester University economics lecturer who in 2010 wrote a paper titled Why I Don’t Have a Girlfriend – Seagull used the Drake equation, developed to estimate how many intelligent alien civilisations there might be in the galaxy, to determine his number of potential partners. “You start by assuming there’s infinitely many, then you keep on making the pool smaller and smaller.”
….Numbers have long factored into the dating game, even for those who have a ropey grasp on them. We might wonder, of a couple’s particularly serendipitous origin story: “What are the chances?” Or we might console someone who is unhappily single that “it only takes one”.
Online dating has strengthened mathematics’ role in the search for love, not only in serving up seemingly infinite potential partners, but in using algorithms to sift through them. As it is increasingly accepted that there is no perfect one for each of us, the numbers are on our side – but that doesn’t mean the search is easy.
“I think there are many ‘ones’,” says Seagull. “There are 107 billion people who have ever existed – if you really think there is one person who is truly your ‘one’, they’ve probably died.”
Now 35 and still single, Seagull has continued his investigation into “making the maths of love work for you” in his book, The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers, as well as on dates. When he had reached that 73 figure, he says, he showed his working to his mum as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to her persistent inquiries as to why he didn’t have a girlfriend.
“The reality is, that’s on paper – it doesn’t tell you whether you’re compatible in person. On paper, I’m probably a perfect match with my dad, if he was a woman, and not related to me.
“And that’s 73 people that I think would be a perfect fit for me – I may not be a perfect fit for them.”
Perhaps understandably, on being confronted by a pool of potential partners who could fit comfortably on one double-decker bus, Seagull says he has learned the need to relax his criteria.
After all, he says, the mathematician Hannah Fry found that the most successful couples have a “low negativity threshold”, meaning they argue often but easily move on. “Then you’ve got to start thinking: what’s the most efficient way of dating people so that you can quickly establish their potential?”
Like the Drake equation, online dating can present you only with a pool of suitable partners you could potentially meet. Attraction must be assessed in person, “and there is no formula for that”, says Seagull. Or at least not yet, he adds; he is confident that machine-learning technology will eventually be able “to read your mood, your mind … and detect bits of our personality” to predict the presence of that elusive spark.
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