Skip to Content

At first sight, parallel parking may not seem to have much to do with the way that birds perch on electricity wires, but Petr Šeba at the Czech Technical University, in Prague, begs to differ.

He has measured the gaps between parked cars and says that the statistical patterns in the data bear an uncanny likeness to those in the distances between perched birds. (Note that distances are by no means random.)

That’s kind of interesting, but perhaps not for the reason that Šeba gives. His argument is that the mechanisms that birds and humans use to judge distances are essentially the same. He says that this is because both species evolved from a common ancestor that also perceived space in the same way. Perhaps.

A more interesting explanation is that Šeba has stumbled across a deep connection between the statistics of seemingly unrelated phenomena. It has been known for some time that the statistics associated with the gaps between parked cars can be described by a branch of mathematics known as random matrix theory.

This theory also describes the distribution of peaks in the way that neutrons scatter off heavy nuclei, the zeros in the Riemann zeta function, and the statistics of the bus system in the city of Cuernavaca, in Mexico (as Šeba knows all too well: he went to Mexico to study the buses).

In fact, random matrix theory seems to be remarkable in its effectiveness at describing not just the physical world but the mathematical world too.

In 2006, Percy Deift from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, in New York, even went so far as to say that random matrix theory may play the same role in mathematics as thermodynamics does in the physical world. In other words, random matrix theory is a manifestation of some fundamental universal property of mathematics.

That is a profound idea that leads to many fascinating questions. For example, if seemingly unrelated phenomena can be linked by the mathematics of random matrix theory, are they also linked in some physical way?

And if so, what then links the real world governed by physical laws and the nonphysical world of mathematical patterns?

Perhaps the way that birds and humans line up offers us a clue.

Ref: Parking and the visual perception of space

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot
Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot

It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.

If they ever hit our roads for real, other drivers need to know exactly what they are.

supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way
supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way

This is the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy

The stunning image was made possible by linking eight existing radio observatories across the globe.

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.