The term crazy mathematics (and its less sophisticated cousin, crazy arithmetic) appeared in public discourse of nuclear issues throughout the Cold War. It was applied, inter alia, in the late 1970s to a straightforward calculation that resulted in the assessment that there was enough nuclear explosive firepower in the arsenals of the Soviet Union and the United States to kill every man, woman, and child on earth many times over. The calculation went something like this: There are over 1,000 megatons in the arsenals of both countries, with each megaton the equivalent of one million tons of TNT. A few ounces of TNT, strategically placed, is a lethal amount. So, with the earth’s population of approximately four billion, each person’s allotment is some 500 pounds, more than enough to do the job. More than enough, that is, if only we could ignore the implicit assumptions that we could somehow divide each nuclear weapon into millions of micronuclear weapons and get the entire population of the earth to cooperate in the mass extinction of the human race.
As this example illustrates, crazy mathematics may be calculationally correct, but its misapplication to practical problems leads to unjustified, sometimes bizarre, conclusions. Of course, the point of this calculation was to dramatize the claim that the nuclear arms race had reached an irrational, even absurd level. Now, there may well have been far too many nuclear weapons on Earth during the Cold War. And, unleashed, they may indeed have destroyed every single person on the planet (although we were blithely unaware of the phenomenon of nuclear winter 1 at that time). This calculation, however, does not support either of these conclusions because it assumes impossible conditions.