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Toast formula

ACHTUNG: This post contains no information which could progress humanity’s understanding of the universe it inhabits. It contains links to several terrible newspapers. I have not fixed any of the issues in the source material, typographical, mathematical, grammatical, or otherwise. We are about to plumb the depths of innumeracy and inanity; consider yourself warned.

The Manchester Evening News published a story a few days ago with this unusual headline:  “(-Rav)/ t = R: Manchester boffins find formula for why toast lands butter side down”. Maybe the w (or ω) was present in the print version. Anyway, the article hits most of the bad formula reporting points: poorly typeset formula in headline; no explanation of variables; no link to the paper or the researchers; use of the word “boffins”; use of the phrase “infuriated puzzled scientists for more than a century”; formula invented to promote a product.

“‘A product’, you say?” Yes: well done, marketing team for dismal sitcom The Big Bang Theory, on finally finding someone to make up a formula you can plant in the news. Professor Chris Smith, director of the Manchester Food Research Centre, will forever have his name linked to this collection of letters and symbols:

(ω-Rav)/ t = R

Apparently this is a formula for the number of rotations endured by a piece of toast as it falls from a table. The BBC Magazine’s Paper Monitor quotes “the paper” (not sure if that’s a scholarly paper explaining the work, or a newspaper) for further explanation:

The speed of rotation (w) minus the rate of rotation influence by drag (Rav) is divided by the time available (t) to give the number of rotations (R) as the bread falls.

Divide by t, you say? How deliciously novel! I can only hope that Professor Christopher Smith, Director of the Manchester Food Research Centre, has deliberately written a completely nonsensical formula to let numerate readers know that he didn’t take the task seriously. It’s worth mentioning that Professor Smith has previous: in 2011 he came up with the formula for the perfect slice of toast for a jam company. Anyway, the BBC’s writer clearly did not get the joke: “Maths was never Paper Monitor’s favourite subject. Better not drop that toast then.”

None of that stopped the story from selling like hotcakes: similar articles appeared in The Daily Mail, Metro, The Mirror, … Actually, this non-story appeared in so many places that it’s time to power up a new tool I’ve been working on:

The Aperiodical’s Nonsense Formula Disapprove-o-Matic 3000

Organ Formula given “Boffins” “puzzled for centuries” “math is hard” Cites previous work on the subject Links to the paper Mentions “researcher” Mentions product
Manchester Evening News Incorrectly
Daily Mail     ✓ !!!
The Mirror
BBC News Magazine Paper Monitor     ✗ !!!
Herald Sun / The Telegraph /
The New Age
The Daily Express
The Mirror

I guess it only remains to thank absolutely nobody for making my day any better. A toast to journalism; it is not long for this world.

(No) thanks to Chris Hazell on Twitter for pointing this out to us.


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