Aliens with a taste for pick 'n' mix: Woolworths stores follow uncanny geometrical patterns
The landscape of England is scarred by history, with landmarks that stretch back thousands of years. These prehistoric monuments provide some of our only links to previous civilisations, such as the Uffington White Horse, the infamous stones of Stonehenge and of course, the ancient Woolworths stores. It was these Woolworths sites from a bygone age of cheap kitchen accessories and discount CDs that I analysed to try and learn more about our ancestral hunter-pick’n’mixers.
I was inspired by articles in the national press on 5th January 2010 about Mr Tom Brooks’ analysis of 1500 prehistoric sites in the UK that revealed some amazing geometric patterns. He investigated how the various sites form a grid of isosceles triangles. This alignment of some of the prehistoric locations was so ‘sophisticated and accurate’ that he concluded that they were part of a geometrical navigational system and he ‘does not rule out extraterrestrial help'.
Using the locations of the 800 ancient Woolworths stores as my data, I found that they also followed precise geometrical patterns with the same level of accuracy. For example, three Woolworths sites around Birmingham form an exact equilateral triangle (Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Birmingham stores)and if the base of the triangle is extended, it forms a 173.8 mile line linking the Conway and Luton stores. Despite the 173.8 mile distance involved, the Conway Woolworths store is only 40 feet off the exact line and the Luton site is within 30 feet. All four stores align with an accuracy of 0.05 per cent.One possible conclusion from this pinpoint accuracy is that the Woolworths tribal duty managers positioned the stores as a form of ‘landmark satnav’. This allowed travellers to find their nearest outlet for sweets that could be acquired in any combination they desired. This could offer us a fascinating insight into what life was like in 2008 England, and we can’t rule out that alien help was required to position stores this precisely and to offer the Ladybird clothing range at such low prices. Or it could be that I just skipped over the vast majority of the Woolworths locations and only chose the few that happened to line-up. From 800 stores, there are over 85 million possible triangles; the 1500 prehistoric sites that Brooks used give over 561 million triangles. From these millions of options it is easy to pick out the few that seem to be impossibly precise.
It is mathematically known that if you have a sufficiently large set of random data, you can find any pattern that you want with any given level of accuracy. What Brooks and I have discovered says less about any meaning to the patterns and more about how the locations follow a truly random distribution.
Matt Parker is based in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. He also gives talks about mathematics to schools and wider audiences across the UK. Full details of this research are available here.