Equations of Everyday Life#3: Media Attention Span (Part One: The Media–illogical Constant)

“It was my biggest blunder.”–Albert Einstein on his cosmological constant concept.

You have to love ‘ol Albert.  It’s not that he admitted he was wrong.  It’s that he turned out to be wrong about being wrong. In other words, the cosmological constant turned out not to be such a big blunder after all.  He thought that there must be a force in the universe that counteracts gravity and prevents a static universe from contracting on itself.  In 1917 he dubbed it the cosmological constant.  Then came Hubble’s discovery in the 1920’s that the universe is expanding, which was closely followed by the big bang theory (the actual theory, not the TV show), and out the window went Einstein’s constant.   But then, in 1998, it was discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating and–bingo!–the cosmological constant, now referred to as dark energy, was reborn.

So what the hell does this have to do with the current equation?  It’s also a constant, and it might turn out that it is as slippery and elusive as dark energy.  The difference though, is that this one describes contraction, not expansion; more specifically, the contraction of media attention over time as pertains to inane celebrity behavior.  I call it:

The Media-illogical Constant

If you’ve had any physics education, you’ve certainly heard of the inverse square law.  It applies to any number of physical properties, gravity, light, radio waves, sound or the attention level of undergraduates to a lecture in a large hall.  Simply stated, as one travels away from the source, the intensity of the force or signal decreases by the inverse of the distance squared.  A similar equation can describe the rate at which our tabloid-minded western media lose interest in stupid celebrity hijinks.  The equation is the same as the inverse square law with one modification:  just substitute time for distance.    Quite simply, it looks like this: 
inverse squareIn plain English:  the intensity of the media attention is proportionate to the inverse of the time since the story’s emergence to national (or international) attention, squared.  So when Lindsay Lohan gets arrested–yet again–the media attention four days after the story will be 1/16th of what it was when the story broke.  [Are you are wondering why this equation just doesn’t use an equal sign instead of a proportional to sign? It beats me.  But one immutable rule of these posts is to always use the coolest looking symbol possible.]
There are, of course, caveats–aren’t there always?  This theoretical pronouncement exactly works, if, and only if, there is no significant obstruction or interference from other media events, whether or not they involve inane celebrities.  This is the same as applies to physical properties measured with the inverse square law.    Place a brick wall between the light source and your measuring device and all bets are off.  Likewise,  a bigger story may come along and completely drown out whatever Lady Gaga has been up to lately.   I have a name for this phenomenon and resulting calculations–pretty cheeky of me since I haven’t even invented it yet.  I call it The Big Bust Theory.   Depending on the stories involved, this may or may not be a double entendre.  Either way, part two of this post will deal with that equation.  It’s coming soon to a blogoshere near you.


  1. I loved this.

  2. yourothermotherhere says:

    Cool post.

  3. An interesting equation (and a great cartoon as well)! I’ve never understood how a zebra running down New York city streets can take priority over 50 deaths in Syria in news headlines, but your equation seems to explain how that might occur :-).

    • I’m sure you read equation #2, which explained how that happens. This one explains how they attenuate. The next one will explain how they go completely bust. (or maybe are distracted by a bust line, lol). 😀

    • REally? A zebra in Manhattan? I missed that story, to my great regret. Can’t say I would miss hearing about another 50 deaths in Syria. Is there a scientific explanation for that?

      • Yes, from none other than Albert Einstein himself, quoted elsewhere in this blog as saying “The only two things that are infinite are the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.”

  4. Anne Bonney says:

    Thanks for the chuckle over the Big Bust Theory.

  5. As always, you’re right on! Whether people understand your abstruse equations or not, it is impossible to not agree with your theories. I look forward to more ridiculousness, it’s sublime!

  6. One of your best, love it.

  7. It is unfortunate that memory is also diminished, well actually void, in the case of what the media chooses not to report which influences public opinion as well. For example do you know how many of our servicemen/woman were killed in Afghanistan yesterday ? This week ? This…..?

  8. I am wondering when you will present your take on the Grand Unified Theory of Media Inanity (GUTMeIn). I am suspecting it will have a real and imaginary e funct, given the frequency of inane occurrences, which is why I propose you change the invert square to a e^(-2t), without biasing you toward any solution on the GUTMeIn

  9. thanks for dropping by artcalling Mark. I enjoyed this post and tried to log in to Like it, but there is some kind of glitch where I log in, then press Like and get the log in window again. So a comment instead. cheers.

  10. Very cool theory, Mark. I always wondered why public relations people are always telling their clients that ANY press is better than no press. And the pooperazzi follow like flies.

    I can hardly wait for the corollaries.

  11. Nice one. I’m a firm believer in using the coolest symbols possible. And I love your writing–I don’t know squat about physics or science or really anything beyond basic arithmetic, but it doesn’t matter. You are insightful and highly entertaining. Keep it up.

  12. “Are you are wondering why this equation just doesn’t use an equal sign instead of a proportional to sign?” – you give us credit where none is due – LOL 😀

  13. I just re-read this post and that’s a very, very good theory. You had me hooked in at “Media-illogical” and I loved the idea of the Big Bust Theory. You’re a better mathematical theorist than you realize!


  1. […] paid by the media to inane celebrity stories erodes naturally over time through a process I dubbed The Media-illogical Constant.   But like many scientific theories, it is more complicated than it appears on paper.     It […]

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