More on coincidence – or, did space aliens build Woolworths?

January 16, 2010 • 4:50 am

by Matthew Cobb

Over at The Guardian, Ben Goldacre’s excellent “Bad Science” column deals with the issue of “coincidence”. If such rigour were applied to religion…

Every now and then you have to salute a genius. Both the Daily Mail and the Metro report research analysing the positions of Britain’s ancient sites, and the results are startling: primitive man had his own form of satnav.

Researcher Tom Brooks analysed 1,500 prehistoric monuments, and found them all to be on a grid of isosceles triangles, each pointing to the next site, allowing our ancestors to travel between settlements with pinpoint accuracy. The papers even carried an example of his map work, which I have reproduced here.

That this pattern could occur simply because one site was on the way to the next was not considered.

Brooks has proved, he explains, that there were keen mathematicians here 5,000 years ago, millennia before the Greeks invented geometry: “Such is the mathematical precision, it is inconceivable that this work could have been carried out by the primitive indigenous culture we have always associated with such structures … all this suggests a culture existing in these islands in the past quite outside our expectation and experience today.” He does not rule out extra terrestrial help.

In the Metro Tom Brooks is a researcher. To the Daily Mail he is a researcher, a historian, and a writer. I hope it’s not rude or unfair for me to add “retired marketing executive of Honiton, Devon”.

Matt Parker, his nemesis, is based in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. He has applied the same techniques used by Brooks to another mysterious and lost civilisation.

“We know so little about the ancient Woolworths stores,” he explains, “but we do still know their locations. I thought that if we analysed the sites we could learn more about what life was like in 2008 and how these people went about buying cheap kitchen accessories and discount CDs.”

The results revealed an exact and precise geometric placement of the Woolworths locations.

“Three stores around Birmingham formed an exact equilateral triangle (Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Birmingham stores) and if the base of the triangle is extended, it forms a 173.8 mile line linking the Conwy and Luton stores. Despite the 173.8 mile distance involved, the Conwy Woolworths store is only 40 feet off the exact line and the Luton site is within 30 feet. All four stores align with an accuracy of 0.05%.”

Parker used an ancient technique: he found his patterns in 800 ex-Woolworths locations by “skipping over the vast majority, and only choosing the few that happen to line up”.

With 1,500 locations, Brooks had almost twice as much data to work with, and on this issue Parker is clear: “It is extremely important to look at how much data people are using to support an argument. For example, the case for global warming covers vast amounts of comprehensive evidence, but it is still possible for people to search through the data and find a few isolated examples that appear to show otherwise.”

8 thoughts on “More on coincidence – or, did space aliens build Woolworths?

  1. Every now and then I have an argument about experimental design. Sometimes people design an experiment to exclude information, not realizing that the design is flawed and will lead to biased results. Another common mistake is to reject data with the excuse “it’s not relevant” when in fact it is – it’s a peculiar case of confirmation bias in which data that does not support the hypothesis is rejected.

  2. I sometimes think of this as the godmaker syndrome. Some people seem to have it worse than others, but most people are afflicted to a certain degree. You have to train yourself not to fall for it.

  3. Dammit, Ben G has just spoiled my next trip to Avebury and its bookshop!
    A pox on him and his reason!

    Seriously, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science is a real treasure and is at least one good reason to read The Guardian on Saturday.

  4. “He does not rule out extra terrestrial help.”

    Since I expected it at the outset, it would disappoint me greatly if he did rule out the most probable thing.

  5. Someone once suggested that the location of (some of; which ofcourse was not mentioned!) the piramids in Egypt put on a map represented the constellation of Orion.
    Someone else made the same constellation by using (some of the) public buildings in the city of New York.
    Does anyone else remember this?

  6. First, hat tip to xkcd for his ‘Abusing of Dimensional Analysis’ (
    Surely this, in the same week as Tom Brooks’ cuckoo geometry, can’t be a simple coincidence, can it?

    Second, now, maths and archaeology, that’s meat on my plate.
    While Ben Goldacre, by proxy of Matt Parker, makes deservedly good fun of ‘prehistoric sat nav’, he’s been missing a golden opportunity for pointing out the obvious: Tom Brooks would be hard put not to hit upon some geometric relationship. Not because of spaceships or advanced prehistoric maths, but because of the statistical distribution of settlements in space.
    The simple point, and one pertaining to the central theme of this blog, as we shall see, is the following:
    Locations of settlements, whether present-day or prehistoric, are rarely random.
    Locational analysis shows a definite modularity of distances between localities of a given size and function.
    Studies in Central and Western Europe show a long continuity of settlement patterns, at least from the Late Bronze Age to the Middle Age, and in some cases long before.
    The statistical relationship between settlement size, frequency, and distance distribution in some areas has been constant for nearly 3000 years. So, with any number of ‘proper’ yardsticks, starting in one place with prehistoric remains and medieval monuments, chances are you may hit upon another.

    There are a few nifty features of these statistical distributions. They are approximately fractal, so they scale well according to power laws. In this and other respects, they resemble allometric scaling, as known from biology. They are the evolutionary result of self-organising processes: no superior intelligence is required to optimise the spatial distribution over a given period of time. (Self-organisation and emerging systems being, of course, concepts which ID-types seem utterly unable to grasp.) Finally, in recent years, Paul Krugman (yes, the Krugman whom you know as the acerbic liberal NYT columnist) and others have shown how simple economic processes can shape the locational geography in such a way that the observed power-law patterns of agglomeration emerge. It’s fascinating to see how these patterns can be traced back all the way to prehistory.

    Both cranks and scientists are given to dotting lines between points. This would have been a nice opportunity to show the public at large why and how they do it differently.

    As the 18th century German physicist and wit G.C. Lichtenberg put it:
    It is the common failing of those endowed with little talent and more erudition than reason, that they fall for artificial explanations rather than natural ones.

  7. I grew up in Luton in the 1950s. I still dream that I’m in the Woolworth’s store with my mum or aunie while they buy cheap beads and old fashioned mascara. The mascara came in a tiny red box, with a little brush. There certainly is something very mystical about those shops back then. Don’t forget the red or green jelly with the fake cream on top!!

Leave a Reply