Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Physics Guide to Hooking Up

Another Saturday night is just around the corner, and you're looking forward to cruising for action at the local hot spots.

How'd it work out for you last time? Did you hook up with your dream guy or gal, or did you strike out? Either way, it's possible that you could improve your odds by applying the physics published in the journal Physical Review Letters a few years ago.

Listen to the podcast with Text-to-Speech roboreaders Kate and Paul.

Or, if you're in a rush, Skip to the Tip in this week's post.

In 2002, a group of Spanish and Brazilian physicists looked at two types of search strategy that might be employed by such things as predators in search of prey, bees in search of flowers, or other creatures (like you) in search of mates. They found that the searchers could dramatically improve their odds by tailoring their strategies depending on the distribution and motion of their targets. Theoretically, you should be able to improve your odds of finding that special someone as well.

When you go out on the town looking for love, you have at least two options. For one thing, you could pick a bar and settle in for the night, while doing your best to mingle as you work to attract or seduce someone.

This type of search strategy is called a Brownian random walk. You just bounce around to search randomly for a love connection in some small area, such as the dancefloor of your favorite bar. Eventually, you might drift to another nearby establishment. But in any case, you don't cover a lot of ground over the course of the night.

Alternatively, you could bar hop - drop in on a bar, work the room, and then if there's nothing promising, dash to another bar to do it again.

This second type of strategy is called a Lévy flight search. Lévy flights involve poking around in one location, and then zipping off to poke around somewhere else. Lots of creatures use Lévy flights for searching large areas, when there are sparse distributions of what ever it is that they're after. Bees often hunt for pollen rich flowers this way, and there's a good chance that you look for your lost keys with a similar search pattern. (You might check the dresser, skip down to look through the desk, pop over to the closet to check your coat, etc.)

As the research team ran their simulations, they found that when the targets were relatively stationary and far apart, searchers increased their odds of success by performing Lévy flights from place to place. Picture, for example, groups of eligible singles nestled at bars around town, with the bars far enough apart that you have to drive or walk a long way to get from one place to the next.

If instead, the targets moved around a lot or there were many of them packed in a large area, then searchers were more successful when they avoided Lévy flights and just flitted around randomly in a small area.

The first scenario sounds a lot like the club scene in most major cities, and the second scenario is more like the flowing crowds at Carnival in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

At first glance it seems like the best bet is simply to zip from bar to bar with a series of Lévy flights, so long as you're cruising in town. But if you're at a big event with lots of available singles around, you should stay in one place.

Unfortunately, things aren't always so easy. If you're making lots of Lévy flights to search the clubs, and your targets are making frequent Lévy flights as well, then the chances are you're going to miss many of your potential love connections while in transit. When targets are highly mobile the physics model suggests that a searcher, like you, should pick one place and stay there to wait for your potential mate to make a Lévy flight right into your lap. In fact, the faster your targets are moving the less you should stray from your barstool.

In some cases it makes sense to evaluate the traffic flow and adjust your strategy throughout the course of the night. That would've worked best for me when I was in college and I used to head with my buddies into town to meet girls. Early in the evenings, clusters of women would seem to be roaming everywhere. And we were roaming too, occasionally flirting as we were going along. In retrospect we could probably have met more women if we'd settled somewhere and waited for them to come to us.

But as the night progressed and the alcohol kicked in the girls tended to travel less, and many of them eventually took up residence at various bars. That would've been the time to zip from bar to bar looking to hook up. Of course, by then we were usually pretty tipsy too and probably in no shape to walk or drive very far.

If I had it to do over again, I would spend the early part of the evening sipping mild drinks and sodas while attempting to charm the girls who were cruising through one of my favorite hangouts. Then I could've turned to Lévy flight searches from bar to bar, once the women slowed down.

The physicists who ran the search simulation weren't specifically thinking of the singles scene, they also considered things like the relative sizes of searchers and targets. For large creatures in search of small targets - like foxes hunting for rabbits - Lévy flights usually work best. For small searchers on the prowl for large targets - like parasites hoping to latch onto passing horses - it's best to sit tight and wait.

For humans, who are all roughly the same size (from a physics point of view) relative size isn't an issue. We only have to worry about the relative motion and the distribution of the people we'd like to meet.

So the next time you head out to the club scene to hook up, stop to take stock of the situation. If the kind of people you're after are bar hopping, you should stop in one establishment and mingle. If there's not much traffic in and out of the bars, then consider Lévy flight searches. And if you're going to Mardi Gras, pick a location, sit tight, and wait for the prospective mates to come to you.


Anonymous said...

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