featured math equation

This viral math equation is the new 'the dress'


Aug. 3 2020, Updated 7:13 a.m. ET

I don't think I've ever voluntarily done math. Math is the worst. But there is a seemingly simple equation that is going completely viral because people can't seem to agree on the answer. Remember The Dress? People either thought it was white and gold or blue and black. This is just like that, only when you try to solve it, every memory of every horrible math test you've ever taken comes flooding back.

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Some evil villain (you know, the kind who just want to watch the world burn) posted the equation to Twitter, and was just very innocently like, "Hey, try and solve this!" Twitter almost immediately erupted with people sharing their two very conflicting answers to an equation that seems like something you would learn in fourth grade algebra. Without further ado, the equation in question...

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Most of us who grew up in the United States remember the "order of operations" as "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally," or PEMDAS. P = parentheses, E is exponents, M and D are multiplication and division, and A and S are addition and subtraction. This is the order in which you are supposed to solve the components of an equation. Ugh, just writing about this is making my brain hurt.

So, invoking my dear Aunt Sally, here's how my brain solved the equation. Because even though I hate math with a fiery passion, I couldn't not get involved. I knew you were supposed to solve what's in the parentheses first, so I did. 2 + 2 = 4. Nailed it. From there, in my head, I then saw the equation as 8 ÷ 2(4) = ? So I then solved the parentheses first again, leaving me with 8 ÷ 8, which equals one.

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I was so sure the answer was one. And reading lots of the Twitter replies, many people, including the original poster, also came up with one as the answer. So I thought I was, without a doubt, 100 percent right. I totally earned that four on my AP Calculus test in high school.

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Even using the BODMAS rule, which I guess is taught in other parts of the world like the U.K. and Australia, some people ended up with the same answer I did. One. The loneliest number, and also the answer to this equation, as far as I'm concerned. I was confused as to how anyone could come up with a different answer. But many, many...many people did.

Apparently, when using PEMDAS or BODMAS to solve the equation, some people believe that after you solve the parentheses, you're left with 8 ÷ 2 x 4. And using those order of operations, some believe it's not necessarily multiplication first and then division; multiplication and division have equal hierarchy and you do them in whatever order they appear in the equation.

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So, using that logic, many on Twitter solved 8 ÷ 2 x 4 like this: 8 divided by 2 is 4. 4 x 4 is 16. I know. So confusing. And the people who got 16 thought they were just as correct as the people who got one. 

Has your mind exploded yet? I am so sorry. I really am. I never want to make people think about math, especially frustrating math. That just seems like the meanest thing a person could do, and right now, I feel like a big meanie. So I apologize. I really do. But the equation is so extremely viral that writing about it was unavoidable.

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A genuine all-out brawl broke out on Twitter between the ones and the 16s. It's like the Jets and the Sharks, only way nerdier, and with less dancing. "I have two math degrees it's 1," wrote one Twitter user. "You're referencing BODMAS but you ain't even using it properly????? It needs to be in that order," cried a 16-er. The equation drove the entire staff of Men's Health insane as they tried to solve it.

So...I know you're freaking out right now, mad because I made you do math and I'm not even a teacher, cranky because you likely got to either one or 16 and feel very strongly that you are right, and probably tired from all the mental gymnastics you're doing right now. I get it. You want to know the right answer. 

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The problem with that — and I'm so incredibly sorry to have to deliver this news — is that there kind of isn't one right answer. It's not like the dress, which was actually blue and black but everyone just saw it as white and gold (or was it the other way around?). Unfortunately, as even super math-y math people from Berkeley will tell you, the math equation is poorly written, and the real answer is unclear.

I know. I know! It's disappointing beyond belief. Believe me, I'm right there with you. We always think of math as objective. As absolutely right or absolutely wrong. But that's not the case at all! Humans made math up, and we're super terrible at stuff, so it was inevitable that we would screw math up too, even though we use it to measure things quantitatively.

Math is a language with nuance, which is why I think I hated it so much. In school, we were always taught that there is always a right answer to a math problem. Clearly, thanks to this infuriating and deceptively difficult equation, we now know that's not true. All math is officially a fantasy! Go tell your teachers! (OK, OK, that's not true. But it kind of is.)


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