And for a time I was tempted by her offer. Picard:
How long a time, Data? Data:
0.68 seconds sir. (pause
) For an android, that is nearly an eternity.
For whatever reason, very intelligent people in fiction are incapable of summarizing anything. No matter what you ask them, you'll get exactly what you asked for
, with way
more detail than is necessary. No robot will ever say "it's pretty darned likely" or even "about one in 8000
that you'll fail"; they say "There is a 99.9875653 percent chance of success".
Common in Spock Speak
and Robo Speak
. Spock often estimated time in tenths (and later hundredths) of a second, which is of course useless as the sentence takes several seconds and there is no understood convention of exactly what instant that would refer to, even if one were capable of tracking time with this precision.
This happens most with numbers, but can show up in factual explanations as well. When you ask your Robot Buddy
if the air is breathable, odds are he'll go into more detail than you really need.
Note that in real life, the concept of significant figures
means that, depending on the circumstances, ending a number with a lot of zeroes is both intuitive and practical. Use of overly precise statistics
to verify claims will often be a sign of pseudoscience
rather than proper scientific method. This is particularly true when the statistics in question could not have realistically been measured to that degree (i.e. the margin of error is being ignored) or if they are subject to major fluctuation anyway.
This is very frequent in Exact Time to Failure
counts; this is largely because the more figures are shown, the faster the timer appears to be counting down. This, of course, lets the hero stop the timer at exactly 0:00:01
See also Mouthful of Pi
and Good With Numbers
. Often used by characters like the Clock King
. Sounds like, but is (usually) unrelated to, Improbable Aiming Skills
. And Ninety Nine Cents
is a trope that plays with this one.
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Anime & Manga
- L from Death Note is prone to giving exact percentage probabilities that Light is Kira. According to Word of God they were all made-up anyway, as any time he said this he was almost entirely sure of it.
- Yuki Nagato from the Haruhi Suzumiya series, who is a ridiculously human alien. Probably the prime example of her ludicrous precision is the "Endless Eight" arc, where she breathlessly tells the rest of the SOS Brigade exactly how many times the past two weeks have looped (Which is thousands of times, mind you) and how many times certain events did or didn't happen during these loops.
- In the Sky Girls OVA, Karen uses this to show that she is the team's Smart Guy.
- In Onidere, Tadashi has calculated how long he can hug his easily excitable girlfriend so that she stops crying, but doesn't pass out (7 seconds).
- At one point in Durarara Shizuo Heiwajima tells someone that there's a 0.0000000000000000000675% chance that you can kill someone with a glare before beating the shit out of him.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion manages to reconstruct this trope. They announce there are 32768 possible causes for the accident. Then, you realizes it was a Genius Bonus: exactly 2 to the 15th power. And then, because the estimation comes from Magi, you understand it's what computers (which use binary) will say instead of "thirty thousand".
- One of the monster cards in Munchkin is "3,872 Orcs".
- At one point in the Naruto fanfic Time Braid, Sakura, who has picked up chakra-sensing abilities, says something to Naruto along the lines of "I can't help feeling that you're, um, two thousand, seven hundred and thirty times as strong as me."
- Kuyou Suou in Kyon: Big Damn Hero counts time in "rotations", with each one taking about 1/1500th of a second.
- In the Pony POV Series, Twilight is able to time events to the point second in her head. She explains that some of the more complicated spells require that kind of mental precision in order to cast.
Films — Live-Action
- David Weber's Honor Harrington books are full of this. He often gives ship velocities to 6 significant digits, when those ships are accelerating at rates that make the last three digits change in the time it takes to read the number. On one occasion he had a character verbally give a "time to grav lance range" in hundredths of a second, and almost nobody in the series will say something like "about five minutes" when "two-hundred-ninety-three-point-two seconds" is more accurate.
- However, sometimes there are Ludicrous Inaccuracies, such as "four thousand KPH—make it sixty-seven KPS" in Echoes. Yes, KPH is kilometers per hour, and KPS is per second. And it is averted at least once, when the time to impact is stated as "170 seconds from... mark." Not that it's hugely important either.
- Played with in Sylvie And Bruno, when Bruno estimates that there are "about a thousand and four" pigs in the field outside. When told he can't possibly be sure about the "four" part, he insists that that's the only part he's sure about—there are four pigs right under the window, but he can't be nearly as precise about how many are in the rest of the field.
- Used in at least one version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Justified by Rule of Funny, and in particular in this case because it's coming from the narrator.
Many stories are told of Zaphod Beeblebrox's journey to the Frogstar. Ten percent of them are ninety-five percent true, fourteen percent of them are sixty-five percent true, thirty-five percent of them are only five percent true, and all the rest of them are told by Zaphod Beeblebrox.
- Used for the opposite effect in To Kill A Mockingbird. When asked by the judge during Tom Robinson's trial, Mayella Ewell gives her age as "nineteen-and-a-half." The fact that a nineteen-year-old still thinks of her age in halves serves to show that she doesn't get out as much as she should.
- In dialogue (internal or with other characters), Keith Laumer's Bolos always measure things down to hundredths of a second or less.
- In Going Postal, Mr. Pump the golem berates conman Moist von Lipwig for his criminal lifestyle, citing that although he's never used violence, the deprivation of his victims has cumulatively killed 2.338 people. Later, Moist questions the accuracy of this.
- Chapter 85 of Moby-Dick deals with the question of whether the whale's spout is water or vapour, a question which has lasted from the beginning history until
this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1851)
- In The Waste Lands, Blaine (a sentient monorail train) can tell if someone is lying using voice analysis, which he claims has a reliability of 97% plus or minus 0.5%.
- In Momo, one of the grey men giving his age. Justified, since they're not human.
- One article in the Annals of Improbable Research researched the question "how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood," and concluded that "Marmota monax is able to chuck wood at a rate of 361.9237001 cubic centimeters per day."
- Many, many films and series give way too exact estimates of oxygen supply or poison effects. Both can easily vary by a factor of 2 if not more.
- Doctor Who: K-9 is prone to this, even needing to be snapped out of infinite repetition when a percentage goes into "three... three... three... three..."
- In the new Knight Rider, Michael is poisoned. KITT has a countdown to his death that goes into the hundreths of seconds.
- KITT would do this in the original too (though rather less ludicrously), by giving distances to the tenths place, correcting times if they were a minute off, etc.
- Star Trek
- Everything that has a power level (shields, hull integrity, and so forth) has at least one digit past the decimal point. This is kind of odd, really, since the hull is either keeping the air in or it isn't.
- Practically everything in Star Trek is reinforced by force fields, including the starship hull and structural support materials. Even if something manages to punch a hole straight through the hull, a force field can be erected over the breach to keep atmosphere and people from flying out. However, if the physical damage becomes too severe, then eventually the structure itself will become too weak for the force field to remain effective.
- Data, from The Next Generation'', regularly practiced this during the show's first season, and was hushed nearly every time. Since then, he'd learned that most people don't really care for specifics of such length.
6 days, 13 hours, 47 minutes. Riker:
What, no seconds? Data:
I have discovered, sir, a certain level of impatience when I calculate a lengthy time interval to the nearest second. [beat
] However if you wish... Riker:
No. No. Minutes is fine.
- In Star Trek: First Contact, he answers the Borg Queen's question by telling her that it's been "Eight years, seven months, sixteen days, four minutes, twenty-two..." since he'd used any of his "fully functional" "multiple techniques". The extreme precision makes him sound rather preoccupied with the subject.
- Not so. Data can access its personal log of key events (maybe thousands per day), and seems to have an internal clock.
- Spock did this all the time, even in situations where the precision of his calculation was obviously not just unnecessary, but impossible. In "The Enterprise Incident", for instance: "They should commence firing at us within the next... twelve point seven seconds". From when you started talking, Spock? From when you stopped? Huh?
- In "Errand of Mercy":
Kirk: What would you say the odds are on our getting out of here?
Spock: Difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7824.7 to 1.
Kirk: ... "Difficult to be precise"? "7824 to 1"?
Spock: 7824.7 to 1.
Kirk: That's a... pretty close approximation.
Spock: I endeavor to be accurate.
Sisko; It's been a long time.
Solok: Ten years, two months, five days.
Sisko: You mean you don't know it to the minute?
Solok: Of course I do. But humans are often irked by such precision. Especially the more emotional humans.
- An odd variation occurs in "Imperfection". Tuvok scans a destroyed Borg Cube and announces the presence of approximately 37 Borg drones. Paris immediately states that such an even number does not sound like an approximation. Tuvok then has to clarify that he's not counting bodies, but body parts.
- Defied in one episode that dealt with Janeway taking a group of lesser known crew members on a away mission to get to know them better. One of them admitted that she has a really hard time keeping up with all the insane calculations and tech stuff that comes second nature to everyone else. In the climax of the episode they were racing away from a shockwave and she counted down the seconds until it hit them, when she reached zero everyone flinched preparing for impact. When nothing happened they all looked at her and she said "or so" and then the shockwave hit them.
- Hull Integrity from Enterprise is just their replacement word for shields, which would lead to the ship being just fine until it hit 0%.
- Although components, like warp and weapons can fail at a much earlier time, and as soon as the shields are down, they usually get boarded.
- Bashir became insufferable for this after it was revealed he was genetically engineered. Even his actor hated it. Most notably, he provides the likelihood of the success of the Dominion in the Dominion War to two decimal places. For reference, the Dominion War was a massive conflict involving four of the most powerful organizations in the galaxy. He also used Ludicrous Precision to calculate travel times in a damaged ship faster than the computer could, despite it making no sense for him to be able to calculate this without being some kind of warp-travel/impulse-travel expert, never mind it being an enemy ship they barely understood the workings of in the first place. It was even lampshaded by characters in-universe how unnatural he was being. It didn't stop the writing staff from continuing to do it, however.
- Heck, the whole "stardate" system was merely another opportunity for writers to sound like they were indulging in this trope.
- Mocked by Eddie Izzard. "According to these instruments, we're all going to die in .2 of a second. Oh, should I have said that earlier?"
- Kryten in Red Dwarf, in parody of this trope.
- The Big Bang Theory
- Sheldon Cooper. Ask him a simple question and you'll get a lengthy dissertation, mostly on how wrong you are. And sometimes he'll give it to you even if you don't ask. Often, said dissertation merely explains how the question is badly formed or predicated on erroneous assumptions.
- While Sheldon is the worst offender, the other characters (except Penny) do this, too. Leonard discusses a kiss with Leslie: "Well, the Earth didn't move. Except for the 383 miles it was going to anyway."
- Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds does this all the time, much to his teammates' annoyance. Lampshaded at one point:
Reid: With this type of criminal, all are angry, most are male, and few, if any, are ever caught.
Elle: Few, if any? You don't have the statistics on that?
Reid: 6%. I'm trying to be more conversational.
Elle: Oh. It's not working.
- The narrator in Pushing Daisies always does this when giving the age of a character.
- Journalists are very prone to treating opinion polls as more precise than they really are. The time before any election will see many such cases. For example, if one particular poll suggests candidate A has 43% support while candidate B has 41%, many newspapers will quickly conclude that A is leading. This ignores the fact that even the most scientific polls will often have a 3% margin of error. See the Fallacy Files for several examples. A more in-depth view of the phenomenon can be found here.
- And not understanding notions of margin of error and significant digits generally. Expect 3000 K to become precisely 5923.4 °F.
- If there's a chart, it won't have error bars. Ever.
- The Daily Mail (the British newspaper which caters for the tinfoil-hat brigade) once ran an anti-SI-units article claiming that Britain would soon have to face "31Ľ" MPH speed limits. Apart from the error of assuming that the rule-of-thumb conversion (8 kilometres approximately equals 5 miles) is an exact one (the correct conversion of 50km, to the same four significant figures, is nearer 31.09 miles than the stated 31.25), they also failed to realise (or willfully ignored) the fact that the percentage difference between 30 and 31.25, let alone that between 30 and 31.09, is well within the tolerance of mechanical speedometers. Plus there's the fact that if they'd used the other rule-of-thumb conversion (5 km approximately equals 3 miles), the whole basis for the silly article would have disappeared.
- Sprint times in professional sports are frequently measured to thousandths of a second by stopwatches operated by human hands—which are not precise to such small degrees. Worse, differences of a few thousandths or even hundredths of a second in dash times are often touted as being very significant, when, practically, differences of less than a tenth of a second in distance dashes are close to no difference at all.
- The funny thing is, in tabletop games, one often can calculate the odds of success to a very high precision (though its still not perfect since even well-made dice have slight imperfections).
- Feng Shui: The Gambler Archetype has this as its Unique Schtick.
- Played for laughs in Metal Wolf Chaos where Jody flat-out guessing it will take the Alcatraz Cannon four minutes to recharge turns out to be accurate to the nearest hundredth of a second.
- Lampshaded in Space Quest 6:
Once the Divalium crystal has been repaired, our electrical system re-established, and the engines fired, I am 97.2 percent certain [that the spacecraft can continue on its way]. Roger Wilco:
Why only 97.2 percent? Computer:
I judged 97.2 to sound more hip to our audience than would 100. You would have to mention it. Roger Wilco:
Don't apologize to me. It's the players you ruined it for.
- Pokemon: The American version of Pokédex entries are known for this. Instead of making up new measures for some of the Pokémon, the localizers decided to simply convert the metric to imperial, resulting in all small Pokémon being lumped into measurements of either 4 inches, 8 inches, 1 foot, 1 foot 4 inches, etc. And in the case of temperature: "Regice cloaks itself with frigid air of negative 328 degrees Fahrenheit." In Japan, it's -200 degrees Celsius.
- In Spirited Heart, when demon Child Prodigy Hade gets selected to become a scientist at the King's Royal Laboratory, one of the teachers notes that she is at least forty years younger than the previous youngest researcher. She corrects the teacher by saying that she's the youngest by exactly "Forty-seven years, six months, and two weeks".
- Fi, the local Exposition Fairy of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, loves to throw out percentages any time a possibility arises. Though the numbers are a lot broader than other examples on this page, always a multiple of 5, she still gives them in uncertain situations when such probabilities should be incalculable. As with most examples of this, the suggested possibility is always the case, even though Fi gives probabilities ranging from 40% to 95% (never 100%). Apparently she's not very confident, even though she's always right.
- She does use an absolute one time, however: when you are about to enter Demise's realm, Fi tells you there is a 0% chance of you returning unless you are able to defeat him. The fact that she almost never uses absolutes makes it all the more chilling when she does.
- In a more comical time, the only other time she uses an absolute (100%) is when she is calculating your chances of being irritated by a crow pooping on your head.
- The World Ends With You
- Sho Minamimoto. Seriously, the incantation he uses for his ultimate attack is reciting 156 digits of pi, rightfully earning him, at least at time of writing, the page image for Mouthful of Pi.
- Konishi also gives the exact amount of time he's late to a meeting when he's first introduced.
- While not appearing in the games themselves, Touhou's Renko Usami has this with her ability to read the time from the stars, right down to the second at the very least. It's assumed her accuracy when getting her location from the moon is just as precise.
- Girl Genius is about Mad Scientists, so it should be expected:
Agatha: (about an overdose of funny water)
I believe another forty-five point three seconds, and I would have exploded
- In Bob and George, during the Fifth Game arc, Mega Man wonders who the next master is (after he had cut Gyro Man to ribbons), and then come to a card that says "Crystal Man" and the odds of it answering Mega Man's question; 1 in 2^24,036,583.
- This panel◊ from Jason Love's cartoons.
- In Worm, Dinah Alcott's predictions of the future often feature percent probabilities to five decimal places.
- Dnerd in The BOTS Master often spouted off really precise statistics, though this took a backseat to his being completely incapable of carrying a standard conversation.
"Calm down, Dnerd, it's just playacting."
"Playacting? Playacting is a compound intransitive verb..."
- In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer hears that the average man lives to be 76.2 years old, exclaiming that he's 38.1 years old. The best part is that he's wrong — he's 39.
- This is J. Jonah Jameson's gimmick in The Spectacular Spider Man. "I want that report in 18 seconds!"
- Exploited in an episode of The Adventures Of Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius, when Jimmy came up with an idea to get rid of his robotic servants on a mission to "correct error" who had reasoned humans are inherently extreme errors that must be deleted. When Jimmy said pi equals 3, the robots tried to correct him, exploding before they achieved Ludicrous Precision.
- The Angry Beavers: Daggett achieves this while hiding under the floorboards.
Daggett: A bug... two bugs... four bugs... (explodes out through the floor) AAAAH! 4023 BUGS!
- Ron in Kim Possible goes through an entire episode like this, despite not being the brainy one... he just took a big interest in his dad's work (Mr. Stoppable is an actuary).
- In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Fall Weather Friends", Pinkie Pie is commentating on the Running of the Leaves, and at one point she tries to figure out exactly how far ahead of Applejack Rainbow Dash is:
Pinkie Pie: She's ahead by half a nose! Or maybe three-quarters of a nose! No, about 63.7% of a nose! (sees Spike staring at her) ...Roughly speaking.
- The Star Trek TOS example above is spoofed in Muppet Babies, where Gonzo (as Spock) takes so long to say the fractions on the odds that he has to be cut off by someone.
- In an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, the heroes are in a castle that is being beseiged by an army of skeleton warriors. Venkman wonders how many their are, and Egon counts out the exact number. Venkman quickly tells him he didn't really want an answer.
- Macaulay Culkin's character in The Pagemaster.
- The "normal" body temperature of humans is often given as 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This is due to an adjustment to the original scale to a more precise division. It was originally based the freezing point of water (30 degrees by the previous scale he was basing his on) and human normal body temperature (90 degrees by the older scale). He adjusted it to 32/96 to make 64 intervals between the two. It was later adjusted again to make the freezing and boiling points more precisely 32 and 212, respectively, making body temperature 'about' 98.
- Alternatively, it's what you get when you convert 37.0 degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit.
- Film box office figures (specially for recent productions) only lack cents to be more precise.
- John Stossel (Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity) reported in one of his books how the average weight of a bird was given in grams to one decimal place. This was done by converting the real estimate from Imperial to Metric and adding "drama digits." The real estimate was "about half a pound." It just goes to show what significant digits are for.
- When combined with "Blind Idiot" Translation, this trope may lead to interesting conversions where a person may proclaim that something is e.g. "approximately 9.144 meters away" or "weighing at least 90.718474 kilograms".
- Some translated cookbooks originally using Fahrenheit scale will tell you to set your oven at a Celsius temperature of 1 degree precision, or vice versa.
- The above two problems led to a fair amount of bafflement with American editions of some of Phaidon's cookbook line, especially their stupendously popular Silver Spoon books; since Phaidon frequently doesn't include metric measurements in their American editions, you will frequently be asked for the seemingly random quantity of 2 1/4 lb (~=1kg) of something. Ironically, some of their less-popular books retain the metric measurements across national editions, eliminating the problem.
- Guinness claims the perfect double-pour of its draught beer takes 119.53 seconds. Apparently if you take that extra .47 seconds for an even 2 minutes you've ruined your beer entirely.
- In the hard sciences (especially physics and chemistry) the use of significant digits is a necessity to correctly reflect the variations between measuring devices and to understand the meaning of the margin of error (and use it). If you are measuring something to the thousandth decimal place, having a reading that just goes to the tenth decimal place is an incongruity (if you are using the same device you can't have both .005 and .05 as measurements, the second number has to be .050 or something with that added decimal place). All that said, unless you are going into something like particle physics there is almost no real world need to be that precise (i.e. a house isn't going to collapse if you are .5 cm off on the span of a beam). This is also part of the reason a lot of old-line engineers miss slide rules — taking calculator results too literally frequently leads to false precision when it isn't needed. However, besides physics, in classical analytical chemistry (i.e., the kind that nobody does anymore since the advent of spectrometry and spectroscopy methods: gravimetry, titrations, potentiometric analysis etc.) high precision is vital if it's a quantitative analysis. Same goes for reagent masses in synthesis. Yes, it can really make a difference if you use 0.572 instead of 0.579 g of a reagent.
- Football (soccer) suffers a bit from this as the rules were originally written in Imperial measurements but are now administered in Metric units. For example the goals are specified as being 7.32m x 2.44m, that being the equivalent of the old eight yards wide by eight foot high.
- Engineers or students with no practical experience often fall prey to this, because they still think of their results as mathematical abstractions.
- This trope has been blamed for the failure to get Americans to use the SI system back in the 1970's. When told they had to learn and calculate multi-digit conversion factors, they instantly despised the whole idea. Ironically, they now happily buy 2-liter soda bottles, run 5K races, and shoot 9-millimeter bullets, because some smart marketers realized that the conversions were irrelevant.
- Deliberately invoked with the calculation of the highest point of Mount Everest, known as Peak XV. Its height, calculated by the Great Trigonometric Survey as the average of several independent measurements, came to exactly 29,000 feet. Two extra feet were then arbitrarily added, bringing the official height to 29,002 feet, so that the value did not look like a rounded estimate.
- The most basic units in the International System of Measures are defined in this way: a meter, for instance, is equal to the distance that light travels in precisely 1/299,792,458 seconds. For that matter, a second is exactly the length of time it takes for a particular isotope of caesium to oscillate between two states 9,192,631,770 times. This was done instead of rounding off so that the units (which are actually pretty arbitrary) would be of the same magnitude both before and after their redefinitions. The only unit which is not defined this way is the kilogram, though ironically, the mole subverts this: a mole is a group of atoms equal in number to the Avogadro constant, which itself has only 11 significant figures out of a possible 23, meaning that two moles of the same substance could have a difference of as many as two trillion molecules or atoms between them.
- The doctrine of comparative responsibilitynote in American law has gotten kind of weird on account of this trope. Comparative responsibility allows a negligent plaintiff to recover in an action in negligence; the simplest and probably most common example is between two drivers, both driving unsafely but with one driver being more unsafe than the other (e.g. Alice running a red light and going 15 over the speed limit vs. Bob just going 10 over). The general rule in comparative responsibility is that the less negligent party can collect from the more negligent one, but the amount the less-negligent plaintiff can collect is less than if he/she was completely innocent. All of this is a simplification; the actual details of the doctrine can get annoyingly convoluted. In Britain, the strange and complex rule worked OK, because Britain had already abandoned jury trials in most civil cases, but in America the civil jury trial remained alive and well. This created a problem—how to explain the rule to the jury, which is of course composed of people who don't know the first thing about torts law? Judges decided that in they would tell juries to assign a percentage amount of fault. This was intended to be a rule of thumb, with juries expected to give answers in nice round numbers (eg. 60/40, 80/20, what have you). Instead, we find juries assigning fault in amounts like 43.75/56.25note or even 68.94/31.06note
- Back before digital watches, little kids learning how to tell time would usually correct their parents when mom or dad rounded off time to the nearest 5-minute increment. Part of growing up/losing one's innocence was finding out that there is usually no significant difference between "ten till five" and "4:52."
- There's a joke that goes something like:
A tour guide at a museum, when describing a fossil, says: "This fossil is estimated to be 65 million years and 3 months old." When a visitor was very puzzled at this kind of accuracy, the guide argued: "When I started working here, the resident paleontologist told me that the fossil was 65 million years old. That was three months ago."