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We all need some space!

Christian in the middle of a field, with two thumbs up
The author in his youth, at least 50m from everybody else.

A couple of days ago, a question occurred to me:

What’s the furthest I’ve ever been from anyone else?

My first guess was on the order of 100km – I’ve travelled a decent amount, to some fairly empty places. But I quickly realised that was way too high, because almost all of my long-distance travel has been on trains and planes, where I was packed in with other people, or with a family member, who stayed in shouting distance the whole time.

This felt like a good estimation problem, so I set up a poll on Mathstodon. To make it easier to answer, I only asked for an estimate of the order of magnitude: 100m, 1km, 10km or 100km.

In the end I got 495 votes:

26%: 100 metres. 46%: 1 kilometre. 24%: 10 kilometres. 4%: 100 kilometres.

I expected most people to over-estimate their answers; I’m certainly very skeptical of the 4% who answered “100 km”. But the poll wasn’t as skewed as I expected – a quarter of respondents went for the lowest option.

However, maybe since I asked on mathstodon, people were more numerically-minded than the population at large.

The replies to my poll were really interesting, showing some significantly different attitudes around the world.

The Dutch contingent made me regret not adding “10 metres” as an option. Almost everyone replying from the Netherlands gave an estimate of somewhere between 10 and 100 metres. Comments included “Firm in the 100 metres and proud of it“, “I guess less than 10 meters, I like to do my activities together with others” and “At any distance > 100m it is impossible to know for sure.

That last one is interesting: I have definitely been in places, such as Wyoming, where I could see for miles in any direction. We all have different perspectives!

I guessed that Australians would have the best shot at hitting the higher end of the scale on land, and the replies I got backed that up: “Here in Oz it is easy to enjoy being > 100 km from a living person by driving alone outback, and it gives me a delightful frisson“, “Driving in parts of Australia has surely had me above the 10km, but I can’t imagine ever being confident of the 100km without being a solo pilot/sailor“.

People in the UK like me seemed to be in the 100m-1km range. Those of us who answered 1km might be wrong, but it’s hard to say – the UK is very densely populated, but there are pretty big areas of sparsely-populated countryside, if not actual wilderness.

One person reckoned they’d been 10km away from anyone else in the Scottish highlands, but I doubt that – I couldn’t find anywhere on the map to put a 10km circle without any villages in it.

I wondered if there’s a point on the Earth which is 1,000km from anyone else. Someone suggested the bottom of the Mariana trench, but that’s only 10km deep! Comparing vertical and horizontal distances seems not to be something we’re good at.

This reminded me of a sign that blew my mind the first time I saw it:

Despite all our accomplishments we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains. By the Farm Equipment Association of Minnesota and South Dakota

But that’s a digression!

Did the poll tell me anything? It certainly gave me a lot to think about. I was really hoping to hear from an explorer or two, chipping in with an anecdote about the time they ventured out into the wilderness, but I clearly move in the wrong circles!

Talking of circles: if you’re struggling, like me, to work out which scale seems most likely for you, you might like to try this tool for drawing a circle with a given radius on a map, by EchoAlfa.

Here’s a 1km circle drawn on a path I recently cycled along. It just avoids the really busy A19, and apart from a couple of farms at the bottom, there are no buildings in it, so it’s not impossible that there were no people.

Screenshot of a map in satellite view, with a circle centred on a country road surrounded by fields.

So I’m happy that I’ve been on the order of 1km away from everyone else once at least once, if not several times. But I think that 10km might be a bit too far for the UK.

How about you?

3 Responses to “We all need some space!”

  1. Avatar Tim

    I’ve been on freeways in the USA where I can see clear road a couple kilometers in each direction, and when I stop it’s several minutes between cars. So I think for a typical person who has gone on a road trip but doesn’t go out of their way to escape people, 10 km is a perfectly reasonable estimate. 100 km sounds too far in North America unless you’re in Canada or Alaska.


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