Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Vauxhall Funds Parking Formula

@bengoldacre comments (below an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement) on a formula extracted from a paper on the mathematics of parking produced by Professor Simon Blackburn and printed in several papers. Ben rightly says that just because the "research" was funded by Vauxhall does not automatically invalidate the formula, although it may be a risk factor for "something being dodgy".

Several journalists seem to think that the formula tells you how to park. But as any mathematically literate journalist should be able to see, the formula merely calculates the minimum length required for lazy parking, with no to-and-fro. The formula itself does not work out "the geometry of where a driver should turn", although this is described in the proof of the formula. In other words, the formula tells you WHICH cars you can park WHERE, but not HOW to park.

The potential commercial value would be if Vauxhall could use this formula to show that its cars were easier to park than those of other manufacturers, using the particular parking strategy chosen by Professor Blackburn. Mathematicians working for other car manufacturers could then produce alternative formulas using other parking strategies, and more mathematicians could work out meta-strategies, and we might imagine this would all be excellent encouragement for kids to learn more mathematics.

However, Professor Blackburn's formula is not a profound mathematical breakthrough. I'd guess that a lot of A-level mathematics students should be able to work this kind of thing out for themselves. So what is the point of promoting this as a piece of "academic research"?

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