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COVID-19: The Rule of 72 Rules

By Shlomo Maital

Albert Einstein once said famously, that compound interest is the “most powerful force in the universe.”   It is indeed, especially when compound interest is at work, in transmitting virus from one person to another, at varying rates.

So, here is the Rule of 72, and some optimistic news from my country Israel.

How fast is the number of infected persons doubling? How often? Are we succeeding in slowing it? The graph above shows the number seriously ill, or who have died, from COVID-19, in Israel,  dated from when schools closed – and the dotted line shows the future projection. The data are by the National Security Council.

Initially, it was assumed that the daily growth in COVID-19 seriously ill and deaths was growing at a compounded interest rate of 25% daily !! (why compound: because 25% more people, infect 25% more people, infect 25% more people..and so on…like bank compound interest).

Here is the Rule of 72:    The Rule of 72 shows you how quickly you’ll double your money. All you have to do is divide 72 by the interest rate it’s earning. This is the number of years it will take for your money to double.

Translate that to virus: Divide 72 by the daily rate of increase at which people fall seriously ill or die – that tells how rapidly the number of victims doubles – in how many days. 25% daily growth? 72/25 = about 3. Every 3 days. So in one month, 30 days, we have 10 doublings.   2 raised to the 10th power is 1,024. A thousand times more ill and dead, in one month. Simply not a situation hospitals can handle.

And that was the initial doubling rate in Israel, in the early days of school closure. Then people got the message and sheltered at home.

The daily infection rate then declined, to 15%. According to the National Security experts.

What does that mean? Rule of 72:   72/15 or about 5.   Doubling every five days. How many doublings in 30 days?   30/5 equals 6.   Two to the 6th power equals 64.

Sixty-four times more victims.

Something we can handle. Difficult, tragic – but – do-able.

   Sixty-four times more victims is hugely better than 1,024 times more victims.

   This is the Rule of 72. And the key point is – the Rule of 72 is in OUR hands. As my cell phone tells me each time I open it: Stay Home.  Getting the ‘compound interest’ rate down from 25% to 15% is hugely valuable.  When we invest we want more interest; when we shelter, we want a whole lot less (virus spread).  And even small differences in the rate of spread make a huge improvement.

   Now – next step, how do we figure out who can emerge from home to run the factories and farms? And when?   But so far, the Rule of 72 Rules.



Are You Kidding? Alas, Scientists Rarely Are

By Shlomo  Maital

science humor

   A friend drew my attention to an article in Chronicles of Higher Education, by Tom Bartlett,  Sept. 29, about the utter lack of humor in scientific research proposals, and in general, among scientists.  (An exception is the late Nobel physicist, Richard Feynman, whose book was titled, Mr. Feynman, You Must Be Joking!).    Bartlett asked the editor of the leading economics journal, American Economic Review, whether  “she could think of any joke, any tiny moment of amusement, one solitary witticism that has passed across her desk. Anything, even if it was rejected.”   “I can’t think of a single thing,”  replied Prof. Goldberg, confirming economics’ nickname as the ‘dismal science’.

   Why is this a problem? Why shouldn’t science be utterly serious?  Isn’t humor frivolous?   The answer is no.  Research on creativity shows that among people seeking ideas,  humor, and in general a light, playful attitude,  are powerful contributors to an ambience that generates great ideas.  Show me a stiff, and I’ll show you someone without ideas, in all likelihood.

    Bartlett provides an example. 

    “Stephen Heard once wrote a paper about how pollen spreads among the flowers of a certain endangered plant. In it he speculated that the wind might play a role by shaking loose the pollen. To support his point, he cited “Hall et al., 1957″—a reference to the songwriters of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” But a reviewer nixed Heard’s little joke. “Although I appreciated the levity of the reference,” he wrote, “I think it is not appropriate for a scientific publication.”   

   That reviewer reminds us of the two old grumps in The Muppets, whose total lack of humor was in itself hilarious.    I myself encountered this, in submitting research papers; anything in my writing style that sought to be interesting, journalistic, was instantly shot down, like a shoulder-guided missile homing in on a helicopter. 

    Hey, reviewers!   Lighten up!   Loosen up!  We need new thinking, new ideas.   Absence of humor often means absence of open-ness to anything unusual or weird.   Even Einstein told jokes (bad ones – see above). 

The Einstein Principle in Innovation: Make Time Variable!

By Shlomo  Maital  

             Dali time               

  The painter Salvador Dali once painted a famous portrayal of time, in the form of ‘rubber stopwatches’.    It recalls Einstein’s breakthrough in relativity theory – in his theory of space and time,   time is no longer a constant, but in fact slows as the speed of light is approached.  Indeed, a space traveler moving at the speed of light would return to earth to find everybody much older than he or she. 

   This principle has now been used to revive television.  A few years ago, everybody was eulogizing TV  (Rest In Peace), with low quality programming jamming the cable airwaves and viewer ratings plummeting.  Amazingly, TV has revived.  According to David Carr, Media columnist for the New York Times, there is a blizzard of great new TV and cable series.  Here are a few:  Breaking Bad, Grey’s Anatomy (my own favorite), Nashville, The Walking Dead, House of Cards, Modern Family, Archer, True Detective, Game of Thrones, The Americans, Girls, Justified…and that’s just a start.

    What happened!

    Time changed.  That is – that high-tech remote, with the red button now enables us to record and view later, or to access and view an entire season of 7 or 13 or 24 shows from a whole series at one swat.   Time has become variable. That is, we no longer have to watch the program at the time slot allotted to it – often, in the past, the single most critical variable for a series’ success or failure.  We can now watch a series whenever we wish.

    There is a major lesson here.  When you innovate, if you can shift the time at which a product is used, consumed or enjoyed, you can turn failure into success.  So think carefully not only about your innovation but also about the forgotten question, ‘when’?  When is it used? When do people want to use it?  When CAN they use it?  Can I widen the range of (time) choice? 

    Television is the proof of concept.  Welcome back, TV.  As David Carr sums up, “the idiot box has gained heft and intellectual credibility to the point where you seem dumb if you are not watching it. “  Wow, what a change.   


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital