The Mathematics of Love

Michelle banged on the triangle, ding-ding-ding, but they chatted on.
“Are we supposed to move to the left or the right?” someone asked.
“Can we stay where we are?”
“Can we talk to more than one person at once?”
“They don’t want to follow the rules,” someone hissed.

Stone Yamashita was hosting a small conference, billed as an anti-conference. There was a Broadway producer, an Eames, several designers, a sprinkling of entrepreneurs, the head of children’s TV network, and some ballsy marketers, who sold food, technology, soda pop, or education. Everyone presented, and they were engaging enough that those of us who weren’t on the project team lined up for transcription duty. By the time it came to “speed-dating,” on the third day, the participants were getting on so well that they wanted more than their allotted eight minutes with each person.

My colleagues consulted in the kitchen on the rules for keeping them moving. If any of us had taken part in real-life speed-dating, no one would admit it. Were they supposed to confide in us if they wanted to swap business plans at the end, we wondered? The problem, someone suggested, was that we had seated them at a long bench. In _The Forty Year Old Virgin,_ our main source for this exercise, the speed-dating took place at separate tables. That way they had to get up and move.

Do you know speed-dating? We’re busy people, in this culture, and the efficiency experts have addressed themselves to our mating habits. Speed-dating companies hire a venue and gather singles; they seat half at numbered tables, and the other half shuffles from eight-minute date to eight-minute date, moving on when the organizer rings a bell. After an hour and a half–and seven dates more than I’ve ever had–each participant tells the organizer who they’d like to see again. If interest is mutual, phone numbers are released. If not, face is saved.

My New York friends keep bequeathing their San Francisco friends. Ramón told me about Dan, a friend from his college days who had recently moved to Bernal Heights. It turned out we live on the same block, and so I invited him over for a glass of wine a few nights after the conference. Dan is a professor of computational linguistics down the road at Stanford. Linguistics geeks, he says, are even geekier than computer scientists, to which a low whistle is the only reaction. I tried to get a professional diagnosis of the Dublin Four accent, which arose, with its mystery dipthongs, as soon as the country got a sniff of money, _roiysh,_ but mean-spirited accent dissection isn’t his field. He builds computational models of human language processing, and tries to figure out how we as a species deal with syntax.

Graduate students are always looking to date, Dan said, and so they took advantage of that with a recent experiment, in which they taped a speed-dating session and noted how each pairing had turned out. Then researchers analyzed the vocal patterns, independent of content, to see if they could predict the success of a meeting. Did vocal mirroring indicate mutual interest? If someone sped up or slowed down their vocal rhythms to match their conversational partner, was it the equivalent of leaning forward? (Dan speaks so quickly it’s hard to imagine him speeding up.) The answer, it seems, is yes–our vocal patterns modulate in response to others, and tell stories independent of our words, just like body language.

Eight strangers, eight minutes each: it’s hard not to smirk at speed-dating. And yet I don’t think we need eight minutes, nor do we need much in the way of words. When there is no recognition, you may as well talk for eight years. And when you’ve met before, in some guise, you know enough in an instant. Only the facts need to be unpacked. You know what this person needs to hear; what their heart longs for; what delights them. You know enough, and because that moment is such a perfect fractal, you even know how it will turn out–the ending is contained in the beginning. It’s no wonder we shield ourselves from such clarity. It gets written, I think, to the same part of the brain as those vivid morning dreams that dissolve by the time coffee is brewed.

The physicist Richard Feynman used to walk into lectures and announce, wonderingly: “I just saw a car in the parking lot with the license plate AMX 259. What are the odds of that?” I like to think that Feynman understood that even though coincidence of feeling is more common than it seems, love lies in the wonder, not the rarity.

3 thoughts on “The Mathematics of Love”

  1. You’re back! Missed you! Hope you had good times during the holidays. (As opposed to other times, right?)


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