The math that defines how Web rumors fly

Italian mathematicians create an equation that claims to define the speed and power with which gossip spreads across the Web. They have yet to test it on celebrity tittle-tattle.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

For a mathematician, the obvious is just as much of a challenge as the obscure. Each has to have a number put upon it. Because once there is a number, we can all feel the issue has been solved and defined.

I therefore had the iPad temporarily expunged from my inner hard drive when I discovered that a group of mathematicians, from no less a university than La Sapienza in Rome, have created an equation that defines the speed and power with which gossip spreads through the Web's crack-filled veins.

You might think that they ought merely to have written down a number that represents the speed of light. Or, perhaps, the speed at which a politician's mouth moves. But, no. These are committed scientists.

Their equation is, indeed, so well thought-out and so significant that they will be presenting their work, beautifully translated as "Almost Tight Bounds for Rumor Spreading with Conductance", at the Symposium on Theory of Computing in Cambridge, Mass., in June.

These mathematicians are engrossed in the very idea of gossip. You know, the tittle-tattle about Jesse James, Tom Cruise and Tiger Woods. No, not all of them together in one place at one time doing that one thing. But, you know, the details of the seamier underbellies for which they each might have the occasional predilection.

Did it take 4.2 seconds for Sandy's sad news to be tattooed all over the world's minds? CC Made in Hollywood/Flickr

The equation is very simple. At least, to you it will be. It is, according to my reading of the Daily Mail, time taken for spread of gossip = estimate of time (log v/phi X log squared 1/phi). In this formulation, 'v' stands for number of vertices of communication and 'phi' stands for conductance.

But here's the remarkable thing. This Italian speed gun of rumors about "Speed" actresses and others has not actually been tested on Hollywood indiscretions.

Instead, professor Alessandro Panconesi and his colleagues (these are nothing other than professional relationships, I am sure) persuaded an American mathematician to send out a tweet about the group's lack of success in getting funding for their research.

It's not exactly "Is Jesse James sleeping with Adolf Hitler's granddaughter?" However, they claim that within 17 hours one vast page of Corriere Della Sera, the fine Italian newspaper, had been dedicated to their work.

When I say "dedicated to their work," the paper naturally compared the speed of Tiger Woods' demise by leaked text with the amount of time it took for Cicero's tittle-tattle about Julius Caesar's alleged preference for boys to appear in print--some 150 years.

Personally, I am rather more drawn to the competitive nature of this possibly magical and revolutionary equation. Once it is proven to be gospel mathematics, I hope for the day when rival rumor-mongers compete to ensure that their piece of gossip enjoys more vertices of communication.

I am sure that you, too, would marvel at a reality show called "Speed of Spite," in which different pieces of prurient information competed for their creators to win a trip to the Caribbean or a dream home in Los Angeles. Or a naked dinner with Perez Hilton.