Two Questions about Grabel's Law

Grist for the Mull

Some time ago I posted, as one of the Daily Quotes, Grabel's Law:

Two is not equal to three—even for very large values of two.

I posted it because I found it particularly funny, and then forgot about it. But recently, I've had a run of visitors to the site, all through searches for Grabel's law, and that has raised two questions for me:

  1. Why the sudden interest in Grabel's law?

    If you've come to this post by searching for Grabel's law, leave a comment below.
  2. Who was Grabel?

    If you know, or if you can find out, please tell us all about that, as well.
  3. Why is Grabel's law funny?

    I'm open to other views on this, too, but I actually have a theory of my own.

    I think the humor lies in the combination of two elements. First there's the nonsensical mathematical jargon—treating a number, 2, as though it were a variable, x or y—which is slightly amusing in itself.

    But added to this is a basic trait which we've all seen in our fellow humans—the tendency not to give up in the face of a simple fact. How many times have you heard someone advance a theory in conversation, only to be proved wrong. How often do they immediately give up? How often do they grasp at straws? You know the kind of conversation:

Guy with martini: "Winter is colder because the light from the sun hits the earth at an angle and bounces off."

Science teacher: "Actually, that's only partly right. The light does hit at an angle, but it doesn't 'bounce'. It's just that the angle means the light gets spread over a greater area."

Guy with martini: "Yeah, it gets spread over a greater area, but I think it bounces a little, too."

Science teacher: "Actually, bouncing has nothing to do with it."

Guy with martini: "Well, I think it depends on your point of view..."

I suspect that when we first hear Grabel's Law there's a faint subtext in our brain, a very subtle echo of a conversation that goes something like:

Guy with martini: "Very few people know this, but they've recently proved that two can sometimes equal three."

Math teacher: "Math happens to be my field, and nobody has proved any such thing. Two does not equal three."

Guy with martini: "Well, not ordinarily. But for very large values of two...

(For surprising news
about the real Grabel
see the next post...)


I googled Grable Northeastern University and found an emeritus professor named Arvin Grable. The story seems to check out both subject- and timewise.

I contacted him myself, following your lead. The result is posted here.



Aw c'mon guys--Grabel's Law is simply a mathmatical expression of the well-known principle that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, nor properly compare apples and oranges.

This discussion, fascinating in itself, is a wonderful illustration of the perils of the Internet with regard to what's considered "factual." Like Mr. Watts, I was impressed by the anecdote purporting to reveal who Grabel actually was--it's full of convincing detail and has a satisfyingly 'real' feeling to it.

But that doesn't make it true. That Watts couldn't find any independent evidence supporting the 'facts' asserted in the story is troubling.



Things that are not true in any respect can be posted on a page, found by others, and re-posted. One example: type "bumcivilian" into your search engine, and you will find definitions that say it is:

"The most basic form of iron, also known as 'brown iron'. It has the unusual property of absorbing sound particles when it is produced by reactions with sulfuric acid." (That's from, which was the top hit in my search results.)

You'll find the same definition on hundreds of pages.

The trouble is---this is a 'definition' stated in a comedy show that parodied old science-demonstration programs like "Mr. Wizard"---the 2202-2005 BBC Two show "Look Around You." The substance and its supposed properties are completely fictional.

I do hope we finally learn who Grabel was, but it's interesting to see an aphorism that's essentially unsourced get such widespread attention--interesting because it's so common and so unremarked to see sourcing considered to be irrelevant.





(Sorry, that was supposed to be "2002-2005", not "2202-2005"!)

I first read this law in 1993.  It was on a BBS called LiveWire run out of San California.    I don't remember the whole conversation, but I remember the line was saomething like :  "Well, you know Dr. Grabel said..." and then someone else said, "ahhhh.  Yes.  Grabel's law."   Until today when I searched for Grabels law I had not even thought of Grabel's law.

Thanks for the comment. If you haven't already noticed it, you can go here to find the end of this story. Dr. Grabel has generously cleared the whole matter up for us.

As the one who originally explained the derivation, please allow me some follow-up remarks. First, my thanks to the fellows who did the research to correct me, and my abject apologies to Professor Grabel for the mistake in his given name. He was a truly excellent teacher and in no way deserved the disrespect of this error. Second, as to the Eight/Ten versus Two/Three: I can only plead that by the time my fellows and I got to lunch, we were discussing it as Two/Three. It was a classmate (initials D.P.) who first named the statement 'Grabel's Law', and if he wants to step forward and be recognized I will do so. Finally, I hope that Professor Grabel is in some way pleased or amused, rather than distressed, to be memorialized in this way. Thanks for the chance to reply at this late date.