connections of seemingly unrelated phenomena

Math has been a nice provider to the world with many of the building blocks for new scientific hypotheses, discoveries, technologies, and philosophical conjectures. It is a glue between science and nature, nature and theory – elegantly describing the physical world while evoking new thoughts about the metaphysical one.
That broad application of math is what I like about it most. Some say it’s still not “cool” enough (and I’ll agree to a degree). However, there is a constant flow of new scientific research that expands the boundaries of human intelligence every day, inevitably getting us all on the path to coolness.
One realm I find most compelling and rewarding is in hidden mathematical relationships, or the statistics of seemingly unrelated phenomena. Maybe it started with the golden ratio popping up in places you wouldn’t imagine. Or maybe it was in Freakonomics and discussion of the legalization of abortion and its impact on crime rates. Either way, new junctions are formed and unique insights are gleaned that push science into a exciting land of interconnectedness.

Here is a recent example of such seemingly unrelated phenomena, by a group of researchers from the Czech Republic. You can access the full paper here or the Technology Review summary article here.
From the abstract…
“Using measured data we demonstrate that there is an amazing correspondence among the statistical properties of spacings between parked cars and the distances between birds perching on a power line. We show that this observation is easily explained by the fact that birds and human use the same mechanism of distance estimation. We give a simple mathematical model of this phenomenon and prove its validity using measured data.”

Spacing between parked cars related to distances between birds perched on a power line. Now that’s something interesting. This makes me think of bathroom behavior too. Man code says there is an optimal urinal/stall to choose based on the permutation of available and occupied units (order matters!). To test your knowledge of man code, try the online game or download the iPhone app called UrinalTest.
The science employed here involves a branch of mathematics known as random matrix theory. In my opinion, bundling the subject matter is important so it can be documented, taught, learned, and applied. On the other hand, unbundling of the subject matter is just as important so new relationships can be formed and interconnectedness can be exploited.
In the end, these new explorations are important for science, education, and a better understanding of our world. And somewhere along the way we learn not to park under the birds, thereby minimizing the probability of off-white, splotchy, automobilistic accents.
Figure 1: From Flickr, birds on power lines.
Figure 2: From the paper, data points represent the probability density of the distances between the parked cars (crosses) and perched birds (squares), compared with the theoretical prediction (solid line) where the mean distance is normalized to 1.
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