Tuesday, February 24, 2009

One minor drawback

While U.S. intelligence officials have spent more than seven years searching fruitlessly for Osama bin Laden, UCLA geographers say they have a good idea of where the terrorist leader was at the end of 2001 — and perhaps where he has been in the years since.

In a new study published online today by the MIT International Review, the geographers report that simple facts, publicly available satellite imagery and fundamental principles of geography place the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks against the U.S. in one of three buildings in the northwest Pakistan town of Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal region near the border with Afghanista

The seven-member team of Geographers used distance-decay theory and island biogeographic theory to determine the town in which Bin Laden must be hiding. Having found the town, they then looked for the building:
Faced with the prospect of picking from more than 1,000 structures clearly portrayed in the satellite imagery of Parachinar, the team decided to come up with a short list of the criteria that bin Laden would need for housing, based on well-known information about him, including his height (between 6'4" and 6'6", depending on the source), his medical condition (apparently in need of regular dialysis and, therefore, electricity to run the machine) and several basic assumptions, such as a need for security, protection, privacy and overhead cover to shield him from being spotted by planes, helicopters and satellites.
They found three structures that met their criteria. So they published their findings, concluding that US forces must examine (but not bomb) these buildings.

Then Scienceblog publishes the story. And then 3 Quarks Daily picks it up. And then the first comment on the Scienceblog posting points out one small problem with this theory: Bin Laden is a Sunni, who is responsible for the deaths of many Shiites; Parachinar is a Shiite town.

I believe this is known as a Kryten moment.


Giovanni said...

Well, he might be there, though, no? Hiding in the last place where you would thing or looking for him? Shit, no that basis maybe he's a cabbie in New York.

"Distance decay" theory... I'm off to find out what that is this instant.

Lyndon said...

I think that qualifies for "two minor flaws"

First, Parachinar is a Shiite town. Second, Parachinar is a Shiite town. I realise that technically, this is only on flaw, but I felt it was such a big one it was worth mentioning twice.

david w said...

and island biogeographic theory to determine the town in which Bin Laden must be hiding

Really? They used the theory that the composition of an island's ecosystem is an equilibrium between the rate of colonisation from other islands and the rate of extinction within that island (determined respectively by proximity to the mainland and the size of the island) to determine where an individual might be hiding? That seems a perfectly reasonable idea to me...

Giovanni said...

You've convinced: I shall attempt to sell my pure evil locator rod to the Pentagon.


david w said...

Oh god, having read the article I see they actually did that. Robert MacArthur will be spinning in his grave.

Pb said...

Anyone read "the men who stare at goats" by Jon Ronson?

When I read "Distance decay theory" in relation to US military type people, I thought it meant something much more crazy.

Peter in Dundee said...

The problem Giovanni is that when the Pentagon test your rod of Detect Evil there will be a flood of far more proximal signals shielding the intended target from detection. They need a scroll of Mass Banishment instead.