10 Biggest Mathematical Disasters in the World

October 20, 2009

tulip graph CorrectionThe millennium bug or the Y2K bug was going to cause planes to fall from the sky, bank accounts to be wiped out, electricity grids to cease functioning, trains to crash, cars to collide as stop lights stopped functioning, life support units to malfunction and computers to crash around the globe. For years leading up to midnight on New Years eve 1999 consults were paid extraordinary amounts of money to solve the problem.  When the clock ticked over to 1st Jan 2000 nothing much happened. It was, indeed, a non-event, an error in logic.y2k digyourowngrave.com (Pic from, appropriately, digyourowngrave.com) 

y2k2The Maths Error: Guessing the Answer.

Computer programmers represented the year in the date of many programs using two digits but claimed logical errors would arise upon “rollover” from x99 to x00.

While consultants claimed their advice saved the world from catastrophe countries that spent very little on the Y2K bug problem (eg. Italy and South Korea) experienced as few problems as those who had spent a good deal of money on the bug eradication namely USA and UK. The solution: Don’t guess. Test parts of system by plugging in x00.


  1. Point 1 of this article is just plain wrong, and I can testify to that as an insider who examined and updated the computer systems involved.

    Basically the argument is akin to: Stopping to wait for a red traffic light to turn green before proceeding is unnecessary because, after stopping at a red traffic light and waiting for it to turn green before proceeding, no accident occurred.

    Now there might be a few business based computer systems that were needlessly modified for Y2K, and maybe the author only has knowledge of them.

    But even if that were the case, that a few systems did not require changing does not mean that no system required changing.

    In general, the Y2K bug did not impact society on January 1, 2000 because the computer systems being run on January 1, 2000 had been fixed to no longer have the Y2K bug.

    Many/most/all of the business computer systems being run January 1, 1995 — if still being run in 2000 — would have not run properly due to the Y2K bug.

    And we know they would have had that bug because these programs are not that difficult to read — especially when you are one of the guys that wrote them.

    So as far as point 1 goes, as far as I’m concerned as an IT expert having worked on the Y2K problem for several companies, this guy just made it up.

    • Hi Keith, Yep! Fair comment. But your metaphor also applies to the Y2K solution. IT experts claimed there was going to be a crash due to a fault in the red light program. The program was changed. No crashes occurred. Was this outcome due to these changes or not?? We can only find out for sure if there is a parallel world where they made no changes. Cheers Mathspig

      • Mathspig, I have to say, you are blowing it on this one. Were there problems with computer programs that would cause them to fail in ways that would cause problems or harm? The answer is yes – many people spent a lot of time fixing them, myself included, so those problems would not happen.

        Analogy: your mechanic pointed out your auto’s brakes were going to fail, and fixed them. Would you have had an accident if you had not fixed your brakes? I guess you could not-fix them and find out….

      • Hi Ms Brown, The problem was some mechanics were looking at cars saying there was a HUGE problem with the breaks when when there wasn’t. How much good work was done we do not know. Except, naturally, for your good self. Cheers Mathspig

  2. “The solution: Don’t guess. Test parts of system by plugging in x00.”

    Quite so. Why people make these errors is fascinating. A matter for psychologists as well as mathematicians.

    I recall that we – in a Plc – spent some effort in trying to get people to to exactly that in the early 90s when the Millenium bug was beginning to be mentioned. Some did, quite a few had reasons why this would be impractical or invalid. Lack of resources, their uniquely complex system. The hazard being too far in the future. This also applied to disaster recovery!

    Looking back, it was an organisation running some people over-loaded anyway. People were being put in a position where they felt helpless.

    Dai Williams did something on this as part of transition psychology – see http://www.eoslifework.co.uk/govtran2k.htm#9, and look for Millennium elsewhere in his website.

    http://www.meta-network.org/openingevent/psychology%20of%20error%20-%20MW.ppt from Dr Maria Woloshynowych Imperial College, London deals generally with the psychology of error, albeit in a medical context. Well worth reading in general terms.

    • Hi Peter, You’re soooo right. It is all about psychology. Same with the Global Financial Crisis. I wonder if someone could calculate the minimum stimulus package required to make people feel the crisis was over. Cheers Mathspig

  3. The effort spent fixing software up to 1999 was worthwhile. The first time I found a Y2K type bug was in 1988. Setting the system time to 1999-12-31 was an obvious test – and the system I was testing failed (a large telephone exchange). Many large companies had finished their Y2K bug fixing before 1999. The media hype was created by the consultants and specialist companies who did not want to step away from such a lucrative feeding trough.

    • Hi Kevin,
      It’s reassuring to know that not ALL the money was wasted. Thanks for your at-the-coal-face comment. Cheers

  4. As someone who spent months patching and upgrading systems to prevent problems I have to say I disagree. As an example I was sitting there at midnight on 1/1/00 watching hundreds of systems looking for problems. I then realized that I failed to patch my own workstation. The date in the upper right hand corner was listed as “Jan 1 19:0” Imagine what would have happened to Social security or IRS computers if that would have happened.

    • HI Glen, Thanks for comment. Can’t answer your question? I can only ask ‘Why didn’t Italy have these same problems?’ Cheers Mathspig

      • Mathspig, have you ever been to Italy? They wouldn’t notice y2k bugs, let alone report them, unless it affected Ferraris or Kinder Eggs. The italians have better things to do than figure out why their phone isn’t working.

      • Hi Matt, Cultural blindness. That’s an interesting point. … but then again the Italian’s planes didn’t drop out of the air. So the observation remains. Thanks for your thoughts. Mathspig

  5. You blew it on this one. Y2K didn’t bring about massive computing and infrastructure failures BECAUSE people fixed the problems. We know that problems would have occurred specifically because many systems have a test or development environment in which the date got set forward and problems ensued.

    This isn’t like an end-of-the-world prediction that didn’t come true. It’s like saying “every car that has brakes worn this thin eventually will have them fail, yours needs to get fixed too.”

    • Hi Kyle, You may be right. But there were so many shonky experts saying ‘your brake pads are too thin’ people didn’t know who to believe in the end. Was money wasted. Yes!!! How much? We’ll never know. I included the Y2K bug because it it marked a shift from pure maths/programming to marketing and hyperbole.Cheers Mathspig

  6. Reblogged this on Singapore Maths Tuition and commented:
    Interesting Blog Post about the 10 Biggest Mathematical Disasters in the World

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