There’s an episode of This American Life called “Somewhere Out There” that has stuck with me since it aired in 2009, particularly the opening segment. In it, a Harvard physicist takes a scientific look at the notion of soul mates — more specifically, the idea that there is just one person out there for each of us. Explaining that the idea came about after a too strong pot of coffee (girl, been there!) the physicist, David Kestenbaum, based his study on something called the Drake Equation which examines the number of planets in the universe and interprets how many of these could potentially hold intelligent life. Because he was single at the time, he wanted to apply that equation to his life and replaced intelligent life with girlfriends.
Of course, nothing here is exact — we’re dealing with rough numbers, estimations and general deduction — but for statistics’ sake, Kestenbaum started with the raw number of people living in his city of Boston; about 600,000. He figured he could cut that down to 300,000 given the 50/50 male-to-female ratio and then he set up some basics. He was 30 at the time, so he made his age range ±10, which brought him down to 35% of 300,000. One hundred and five thousand straight women still had the chance to become Mrs. Kestenbaum, but 75% of them blew it by not being a college graduate. Argh! Kidding, excluding people based on college is terrible — bullet dodged! Those “basics” left him with 25,000 people, down from 600,000. He estimated half of these to be single. Now he had to deal with the real issue: how many of these would he find attractive? He guessed, in my opinion, a high percentage: one out of five. Even with that generous assumption, his number was cut to 2,500.
Without factoring any personal details — sense of humor, interests, goals, religion, etc — this straight male in a major city was left with a relatively low number of potential suitors considering his last and most damning factor: the chance of both parties being at the right place at the right time.
So what would my numbers look like as a gay woman?
At the time of its airing, I was single and living in Portland, Oregon. Like Boston, Portland at the time had a population of about 600,000, and for the purposes of this experiment I assumed similar demographics even though I know y’all are going to say, “Excuse me, Portland in not Boston,” but I need y’all to give this to me. I cut the population in half for women to 300,000. The statistics on my next cut are mixed — there was a recall on the “one out of ten” gay statistic; Gallup’s latest estimates in 2012 dip LGBT numbers to 3.8%, and city-specific statistics can toggle that national average significantly. But a 2012 report puts Portland at 6% LGBT, so for my population cut I assumed it was as gay as it ever was. Eighteen thousand. I used his +10 age range but not his -10 age range because at the time I was 23, so based on his age ranges totaling 35%, I halved that and was left with 17.5% of 18,000 — 3,150. I don’t hold any value in diplomas, but self education is important, and I assumed the same of 75% of gay women. Around 2,400. I cut that in half for those who were single and I had 1,200. I used his one out of five attraction scale and was down to 240. That’s before I got into anything personal. Half that for emotionally available people. Half that for a sense of humor. Half that for something Kestenbaum left out — their feelings toward you. Half that for everything else.
Now imagine that I’d been realistic with the estimations. Still, 15 is nothing to scoff at! Fifteen people in the entire world that might be right for you, hidden by the constraints of space and time. It’s a genuinely disheartening number on its own! Except there’s a part of us that already knew that. It is – I suspect – why we U-haul, why we dig in, why we nest. Or rather why we resign, why we break ranks, why we untether. Or worse, why we settle. When the answer to the question, “What are the chances?” is a very small number, any of those choices seem like the most logical choice. Maybe the reason your friend/the older self-professed queen at the bar/your co-worker/that girl Claire won’t stop talking about finding someone is because they have 25 times more Keurig flavor options than the whole of their supposed dating pool. Be kinder to each other — we’re scientifically improbable.
Except the reality of it is showing a different picture. According to a 2012 census the number of reported gay couples grew by as much as 80% since 2000, and it’s only getting queerer. The internet, a cultural shift, federal recognition – whatever’s responsible, we’re defying the odds. How do you reconcile that discrepancy if not to invalidate the idea of a predetermined outcome completely?
When I sat down to do the math on this I thought I was just curious to find out a tangible number to a hypothetical theory. I’m just a crazy cool girl that likes to have fun! But when I dug down a bit, I realized the reason I was so interested in investigating the idea of soulmates was because for me the idea of “the one” has always felt mythical. Like the story of Persephone, the Greek goddess responsible for creating the four seasons after slipping down a crack into the underworld, it feels like tidy, accessible symbolism.
Soulmates as we’ve come to know them rely heavily on the kind of destiny that doesn’t just leave you inexplicably at the doorstep, it sees you through to the end of the story/movie/book. That kind of destiny by its very nature removes choice from the equation, and to dismiss the very real choices we make on a daily basis required to be better for each other assumes relationships are without sacrifice or that they’re innately seamless. Even beyond the complexities of relationships, the idea of soulmates as these star-crossed beings coming (and staying) together implies that we either stay the same our entire lives or that we grow in the exact same way and at the exact same rate as another person. Except we know neither of those things to be true. Do I think in some instances we meet, love, and pair in ways beyond our comprehension? Certainly. But not because I think we’re fated to do so.
[Carrie Bradshaw voice] Anyway, isn’t it more impressive that we choose rather than find each other? That we continue to say yes? Maybe the reason the original numbers don’t add up is because they’re approaching human connection in ways that can’t and shouldn’t be quantified. Or maybe the math seems impossible because we’re solving for one.