The Rosie Project
I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem. As with so many scientific breakthroughs, the answer was obvious in retrospect. But had it not been for a series of unscheduled events, it is unlikely I would have discovered it.
The sequence was initiated by Gene’s insisting I give a lecture on Asperger’s syndrome that he had previously agreed to deliver himself. The timing was extremely annoying. The preparation could be time-shared with lunch consumption, but on the designated evening I had scheduled ninety-four minutes to clean my bathroom. I was faced with a choice of three options, none of them satisfactory.
1. Cleaning the bathroom after the lecture, resulting in loss of sleep with a consequent reduction in mental and physical performance.
2. Rescheduling the cleaning until the following Tuesday, resulting in an eight-day period of compromised bathroom hygiene and consequent risk of disease.
3. Refusing to deliver the lecture, resulting in damage to my friendship with Gene.
I presented the dilemma to Gene, who, as usual, had an alternative solution.
“Don, I’ll pay for someone to clean your bathroom.”
I explained to Gene—again—that all cleaners, with the possible exception of the Hungarian woman with the short skirt, made errors. Short-Skirt Woman, who had been Gene’s cleaner, had disappeared following some problem with Gene and Claudia.
“I’ll give you Eva’s mobile number. Just don’t mention me.”
“What if she asks? How can I answer without mentioning you?”
“Just say you’re contacting her because she’s the only cleaner who does it properly. And if she mentions me, say nothing.”
This was an excellent outcome, and an illustration of Gene’s ability to find solutions to social problems. Eva would enjoy having her competence recognized and might even be suitable for a permanent role, which would free up an average of 316 minutes per week in my schedule.
Gene’s lecture problem had arisen because he had an opportunity to have sex with a Chilean academic who was visiting Melbourne for a conference. Gene has a project to have sex with women of as many different nationalities as possible. As a professor of psychology, he is extremely interested in human sexual attraction, which he believes is largely genetically determined.
This belief is consistent with Gene’s background as a geneticist. Sixty-eight days after Gene hired me as a postdoctoral researcher,
he was promoted to head of the Psychology Department, a highly controversial appointment that was intended to establish the university as the Australian leader in evolutionary psychology and increase its public profile.
During the time we worked concurrently in the Genetics Department, we had numerous interesting discussions, and these continued after his change of position. I would have been satisfied with our relationship for this reason alone, but Gene also invited me to dinner at his house and performed other friendship rituals, resulting in a social relationship. His wife, Claudia, who is a clinical psychologist, is now also a friend. Making a total of two.
Gene and Claudia tried for a while to assist me with the Wife Problem. Unfortunately, their approach was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences. I am thirty-nine years old, tall, fit, and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor. Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing.
However, there is something about me that women find unappealing. I have never found it easy to make friends, and it seems that the deficiencies that caused this problem have also affected my attempts at romantic relationships. The Apricot Ice Cream Disaster is a good example.
Claudia had introduced me to one of her many friends. Elizabeth was a highly intelligent computer scientist, with a vision problem that had been corrected with glasses. I mention the glasses because Claudia showed me a photograph and asked me if I was okay with them. An incredible question! From a psychologist! In evaluating Elizabeth’s suitability as a potential partner—someone
to provide intellectual stimulation, to share activities with, perhaps even to breed with—Claudia’s first concern was my reaction to her choice of glasses frames, which was probably not even her own but the result of advice from an optometrist. This is the world I have to live in. Then Claudia told me, as though it was a problem, “She has very firm ideas.”
“Are they evidence-based?”
“I guess so,” Claudia said.
Perfect. She could have been describing me.
We met at a Thai restaurant. Restaurants are minefields for the socially inept, and I was nervous as always in these situations. But we got off to an excellent start when we both arrived at exactly 7:00 p.m. as arranged. Poor synchronization is a huge waste of time.
We survived the meal without her criticizing me for any social errors. It is difficult to conduct a conversation while wondering whether you are looking at the correct body part, but I locked on to her bespectacled eyes, as recommended by Gene. This resulted in some inaccuracy in the eating process, which she did not seem to notice. On the contrary, we had a highly productive discussion about simulation algorithms. She was so interesting! I could already see the possibility of a permanent relationship.
The waiter brought the dessert menus and Elizabeth said, “I don’t like Asian desserts.”
This was almost certainly an unsound generalization, based on limited experience, and perhaps I should have recognized it as a warning sign. But it provided me with an opportunity for a creative suggestion.
“We could get an ice cream across the road.”
“Great idea. As long as they’ve got apricot.”
I assessed that I was progressing well at this point and did not
think the apricot preference would be a problem. I was wrong. The ice-cream parlor had a vast selection of flavors, but they had exhausted their supply of apricot. I ordered a chocolate chili and licorice double cone for myself and asked Elizabeth to nominate her second preference.
“If they haven’t got apricot, I’ll pass.”
I couldn’t believe it. All ice cream tastes essentially the same, owing to chilling of the taste buds. This is especially true of fruit flavors. I suggested mango.
“No thanks, I’m fine.”
I explained the physiology of taste bud chilling in some detail. I predicted that if I purchased a mango and a peach ice cream, she would be incapable of differentiating. And, by extension, either would be equivalent to apricot.
“They’re completely different,” she said. “If you can’t tell mango from peach, that’s your problem.”
Now we had a simple objective disagreement that could readily be resolved experimentally. I ordered a minimum-size ice cream in each of the two flavors. But by the time the serving person had prepared them, and I turned to ask Elizabeth to close her eyes for the experiment, she had gone. So much for “evidence-based.” And for computer “scientist.”
Afterward, Claudia advised me that I should have abandoned the experiment prior to Elizabeth’s leaving. Obviously. But at what point? Where was the signal? These are the subtleties I fail to see. But I also fail to see why heightened sensitivity to obscure cues about ice-cream flavors should be a prerequisite for being someone’s partner. It seems reasonable to assume that some women do not require this. Unfortunately, the process of finding them is impossibly inefficient. The Apricot Ice Cream Disaster had cost a
whole evening of my life, compensated for only by the information about simulation algorithms.
• • •
Two lunchtimes were sufficient to research and prepare my lecture on Asperger’s syndrome, without sacrificing nourishment, thanks to the provision of Wi-Fi in the medical library café. I had no previous knowledge of autism spectrum disorders, as they were outside my specialty. The subject was fascinating. It seemed appropriate to focus on the genetic aspects of the syndrome, which might be unfamiliar to my audience. Most diseases have some basis in our DNA, though in many cases we have yet to discover it. My own work focuses on genetic predisposition to cirrhosis of the liver. Much of my working time is devoted to getting mice drunk.
Naturally, the books and research papers described the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, and I formed a provisional conclusion that most of these were simply variations in human brain function that had been inappropriately medicalized because they did not fit social norms—constructed social norms—that reflected the most common human configurations rather than the full range.
The lecture was scheduled for 7:00 p.m. at an inner-suburban school. I estimated the cycle ride at twelve minutes and allowed three minutes to boot my computer and connect it to the projector.
I arrived on schedule at 6:57 p.m., having let Eva, the short-skirted cleaner, into my apartment twenty-seven minutes earlier. There were approximately twenty-five people milling around the door and the front of the classroom, but I immediately recognized Julie, the convenor, from Gene’s description: “blonde with big tits.” In fact, her breasts were probably no more than one and a half standard deviations from the mean size for her body weight and hardly a remarkable identifying feature. It was more a question
of elevation and exposure, as a result of her choice of costume, which seemed perfectly practical for a hot January evening.
I may have spent too long verifying her identity, as she looked at me strangely.
“You must be Julie,” I said.
“Can I help you?”
Good. A practical person. “Yes, direct me to the VGA cable. Please.”
“Oh,” she said. “You must be Professor Tillman. I’m so glad you could make it.”
She extended her hand but I waved it away. “The VGA cable, please. It’s six fifty-eight.”
“Relax,” she said. “We never start before seven fifteen. Would you like a coffee?”
Why do people value others’ time so little? Now we would have the inevitable small talk. I could have spent fifteen minutes at home practicing aikido.
I had been focusing on Julie and the screen at the front of the room. Now I looked around and realized that I had failed to observe nineteen people. They were children, predominantly male, sitting at desks. Presumably these were the victims of Asperger’s syndrome. Almost all the literature focuses on children.
Despite their affliction, they were making better use of their time than their parents, who were chattering aimlessly. Most were operating portable computing devices. I guessed their ages as between eight and thirteen. I hoped they had been paying attention in their science classes, as my material assumed a working knowledge of organic chemistry and the structure of DNA.
I realized that I had failed to reply to the coffee question.
Unfortunately, because of the delay, Julie had forgotten the question. “No coffee,” I explained. “I never drink coffee after three forty-eight p.m. It interferes with sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of three to four hours, so it’s irresponsible serving coffee at seven p.m. unless people are planning to stay awake until after midnight. Which doesn’t allow adequate sleep if they have a conventional job.” I was trying to make use of the waiting time by offering practical advice, but it seemed that she preferred to discuss trivia.
“Is Gene all right?” she asked. It was obviously a variant on that most common of formulaic interactions, “How are you?”
“He’s fine, thank you,” I said, adapting the conventional reply to the third-person form.
“Oh. I thought he was ill.”
“Gene is in excellent health except for being six kilograms overweight. We went for a run this morning. He has a date tonight, and he wouldn’t be able to go out if he was ill.”
Julie seemed unimpressed, and in reviewing the interaction later, I realized that Gene must have lied to her about his reason for not being present. This was presumably to protect Julie from feeling that her lecture was unimportant to Gene and to provide a justification for a less prestigious speaker being sent as a substitute. It seems hardly possible to analyze such a complex situation involving deceit and supposition of another person’s emotional response, and then prepare your own plausible lie, all while someone is waiting for you to reply to a question. Yet that is exactly what people expect you to be able to do.
Eventually, I set up my computer and we got started, eighteen minutes late. I would need to speak forty-three percent faster to finish on schedule at 8:00 p.m.—a virtually impossible performance goal. We were going to finish late, and my schedule for the rest of the night would be thrown out.