Bernadette Rostenkowski, chemistry, date, dating, February 14, Harvard, Howard Wolowitz, Ira Glass, Leonard Hofstadter, love, mathematics, NPR, physics, Rajesh Koothrappali, relationships, romance, Sheldon Cooper, single, The Big Bang Theory, This American Life, Valentine's Day
I got a timely heads up from an Oregonian blog reader, Trina, that this week’s episode of “This American Life” would likely suit my fancy. It’s a Valentine’s-themed broadcast, so I fittingly took her advice this morning and tuned in as Ira Glass chatted with NPR’s David Kestenbaum. They traveled back to the days when David was a PhD student studying high-energy particle physics at Harvard. If you’re picturing an episode of The Big Bang Theory right now, you’re not alone. I bet any listener not immediately familiar with the intricacies of particle physics was thinking the same thing.
One day while David and his college friends were chit-chatting around the science lab, as physicists often do, the subject turned to women – in particular, why none of these smart, available men had girlfriends. Scientific fact: wherever there is a physicist, there is bound to be a whiteboard. So the power of mathematics was quickly and logically employed via blue and green Expo markers to estimate the likelihood of these men ever finding a girlfriend. They employed a variation of the Drake Equation, used to estimate how many planets are out there that could support intelligent life. But in this instance, they replaced intelligent life with… well… girlfriends. (This could not be headed in a good direction.)
They started with the population of Boston, as was only logical considering it makes sense to date someone who lives within a reasonable distance. Population of Boston: approximately 600,000.
These particular Harvard PhD students weren’t gay, so take out all the men in Boston and that brings us to 300,000.
Then weed out anyone outside of a reasonable age range (and within a legal one). Let’s go 10 years on either side. 20-to-40-year-olds represent between 30-35 percent of Boston’s population, leaving them with 100,000 women to pick from.
These being doctoral students, they wanted girlfriends who were college grads. (Apparently there were no Leonard Hofstadters in the group willing to “settle” for a Cheesecake Factory waitress named Penny.) Statistics show that 25 percent of Americans over 25 years old have graduated college. So we’re now down to 25,000 potential mates.
“Ouch,” recalls David.
These physicists (clearly) aren’t players and do adhere to some ethical boundaries, aiming to date people who are, in fact, single. That knocks out half the group, bringing them to 12,500.
“Now this is getting scary.”
But of those 12,500, how many people are they actually attracted to? It’s Valentine’s after all, so let’s go with a glass-half-full estimate of one in five. That knocks our pool of candidates down by a whopping 80 percent — to 2,500.
“In the whole city of Boston, right? That’s like a needle in a haystack.”
And then, in his usual insightful manner, Ira brings up the glaring (and harsh) reality: “That 2,500 is before you get to anything personal, like your religion or how you see the world… or what’s your sense of humor.”
As Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard stared at that whiteboard in disbelief, a female professor walked into the lab. She, too, was single, and was immediately drawn to the intricate web of mathematics and hopelessness drawn out before her.
Pulled by both her intellectual curiosity and her lonely heart, she asked them to use the same equation to figure out her chances of finding a man. So they narrowed it down in much the same way, subset by subset.
The female professor, though, had other requirements that the men didn’t. For one, her potential suitor had to be taller than her, and she was pretty tall. (Well, this rings a bell.) And he had to be smarter than her. Of course, she was a Harvard physics professor, so that really limited things.
Basically at the end of the equation, at the bottom of the whiteboard, the solution was found: There was nobody in Boston for this smart, available, successful woman.
“She’s alone,” David concluded, with a hesitant giggle.
I pulled out my earbuds in disbelief as I robotically boarded the escalator out of the Metro station and toward my office building. I ordered a medium coffee, but my mind was elsewhere as the barista wished me a Happy Valentine’s Day. I thought of myself. I thought of my city. I thought of my expectations. I thought of my chances of ever finding a husband.
And then I laughed. Because as harsh as the reality is, what David and his friends concluded is somewhat close to the truth. It’s not easy to find someone! In some instances — yes — it’s close to impossible.
You may be asking me why I decided to share this seemingly depressing story on today of all days, the National Day of Romance. Good question. I shared it because there is freedom in knowing that we cannot beat the odds. There is something liberating about seeing the math scribbled out before our very eyes, and realizing that, at the end of the day, we really can’t control it all.
Based on the findings of this alternate Drake Equation, finding love ain’t easy. But I choose to see it as this: If – and when – we do find love, we are blessed. So instead of sitting around and crying about how lonely and single we are, we can choose to simply live life, and to live it well. What tomorrow brings no one knows. But what we do know is that for every lonely Howard Wolowitz, there may just be a Bernadette Rostenkowski waiting to hold his hand. And the rest, as they say, is chemistry.