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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 June, 2004, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Formula for the perfect formula
By Giles Wilson
BBC News Online Magazine

However mundane a task you are trying to perform, whether it's watering the garden or ironing a shirt, someone somewhere will probably have worked out a formula for doing it more effectively.

Take your pick
If you've been reading the newspapers carefully over the past few years, you will know how to do all of these jobs to perfection: dunking biscuits, building sandcastles, putting marmalade on toast, choosing when to get married, holding chopsticks, tossing pancakes and pulling Christmas crackers.

To say nothing of boiling eggs, parallel parking, or even how to be happy. Just this week we learned what made the perfect football chant.

For researchers, many of whom are under pressure to get press coverage, working out a convincing-looking formula for a mundane activity has become a sure-fire way of getting media coverage.

Being happy, for instance, is all about P+(5xE)+(3xH). The perfect shopping trip is (axbwc)x (d+ew(1+f)). The secret to parallel parking cannot be expressed without resorting to a complicated graphical layout, but then everyone knows that's a difficult business.

One might almost conclude that H=0(f+) +S (where H = the number and prominence of headlines, O = the ordinariness of human behaviour you're explaining, f = having a formula worked out, = presence of a suitably scientific-looking symbol and S = having a sponsor with an enterprising public relations office)... the formula for the perfect formula.

Serious science

The formula which arguably kicked off this mania was how to dunk biscuits, a piece of work sponsored by McVities. Dr Len Fisher, the scientist who devised the formula and can claim to be a trend-setter, has no worries about sponsors being involved if the end result gets us more into science.

Dr Len Fisher
Dr Len Fisher with the perfect sandwich and an aroma-measuring device

After his success with biscuits, he calculated ciabatta was the best kind of bread with which to soak up unused gravy (thanks to sponsorship from Bisto). He then discovered cheddar cheese should be sliced to 2.8mm for the perfect sandwich (thanks to sponsorship from the British Cheese Council).

Having written popular science books, where the rule had been to keep formulas out, he claims to have been surprised when newspapers got a taste for equations. He puts it down to them wanting to make a story look scientific, like "dressing someone in white coats and giving them fluffy hair and rimless spectacles".

And while he says some people may feel tempted to use a formula for cynical headline-grabbing reasons, he has been careful to take on "publicity projects" only when it lets him talk about how science can be made more accessible.

"There will be some readers out there who may start wondering about why scientists use equations. Maybe they will start finding out that maths and science are not frightening or threatening. Well, part of maths is frightening - but so is part of music," he says.

Dr Fisher's initial explanation of biscuit dunking in 1998, reported on this website, now seems to have a prophetic edge.

"You have got a race between the dissolving of the sugar and your biscuit falling apart," he said. "As with most things in physics, we can write equations which govern this."

Six years on, "most things" now seem to have the equations he once promised.


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