Why Do I Need a Physics Degree To Buy Paper Towels?

The call came in around 5 pm, just as I was leaving work. It seemed rather innocuous at the time, “Honey, would you mind stopping at the store and picking up some paper towels,” my wife asked with a lilt in her voice that made me positively giddy at the thought of racing home to give her a hug. “Sure, sweetie, see ya soon,” I said, jumping in my car and heading to our local supermarket to fulfill her request.

Easy Peasy, Nice, and Easy

I parked my car and walked into the supermarket without inkling as to the mind-challenging, mathematical problem-solving awaiting me in the paper towel aisle. Usually, my Spidey sense tingles and warns me of impending doom before mindlessly walking into some unforeseen danger. But not this time. I was completely unprepared for the paper towel-buying experience, blindsided by math equations from one end of the aisle to the other, overwhelmed that I would have to employ math skills that I had forgotten moments after graduating high school. 

Warning Signs

I should have known something was amiss when I looked and saw that aisle 13 was the location of the mass quantities and varieties of paper towels available. To make matters worse, it was Friday, not actually Friday the 13th, but close enough as I think back and realize it was a bad omen nonetheless.

Where No Man Has Boldly Gone Before 

Upon accepting the task my wife so kindly asked me to fulfill, I didn’t realize some crucial facts, like which paper towels do we normally buy? Bounty? Viva? Presto? Sparkle? Scott? Brawny, do we buy some generic store brand I have never heard of before? I was clueless. I began to panic for a moment. I could have used the technology and given her a quick phone call, but that would have gone against every man code ever. Seriously, like asking for directions, men don’t do that, get real!

Solomon Would Have Been Proud

Then it hit me. I didn’t have anything to worry about. I would simply buy the best paper towels available. My wife would surely be happy, and I could show off my smarts by bringing home the best. Everyone wants the best of everything, so why should paper towels be any different?  This is where the problems started.

E=MC Whatever                    

So, unbeknownst to me at the time, paper towel companies seem to be in some universal struggle of competitiveness that I knew nothing about.  As I walked up and down the paper towel aisle, it became increasingly clear that their struggle was real, and their attempts to rationalize the superiority of their products revolved around mathematical equations that would have freaked out Einstein. 

Who is Doing the Math?

I was well aware of the first product I examined, “Bounty, the quicker picker-upper,” even though I didn’t know how it was quicker at picking up something than other paper towels, it is a highly well-advertised product and a wise purchase, I thought to myself.  So, I went to grab a stack of Bounty when I realized that there were actually several different types of Bounty packages available. Interesting, let me see which would be best for my family.  First, there was the “Quick Size,” in which you bought 16 rolls but actually got as many as 40 rolls.  Hmmm?   Then there was the “Family” size in which you bought 12 rolls that, in reality, got you 30. Hmmm?

But we aren’t finished. You also had a choice of buying eight rolls, in which you received 20, or you could buy two triple rolls that weren’t triple at all but actually six rolls. All of which begged the question as to what actually constitutes a roll of paper towels. 

An Enigma Wrapped Up in a Question 

Figuring that Bounty paper towels must be an outlier, I looked at the other numerous choices located up and down the aisle to get some clarification as to what an actual roll of paper towels looks like.  My next stop was in front of a paper towel called “Presto,” which seemed to have a much smaller display than the other brands but had gorgeous packaging and piqued my interest. They only had one offering called “6 Huge Rolls” that were, in fact, 19 regular rolls.  To my way of thinking, their math seemed very fuzzy as the multipliers didn’t seem to make sense, so I continued looking.

Does Anyone Know?

Stop after stop, time after time, I was completely disillusioned and bewildered at the fact that I could not actually figure out what a roll of paper towels should look like.  Brawny had something called “Tear a Square,” which was two doubles equaling four rolls, or you could buy “Pick a Size,” which was 12 doubles equaling 24 rolls.  I didn’t know if I wanted to pick a square of tear a size. It seemed very confusing. Why couldn’t I buy the two doubles and tear a square? Apparently, that wasn’t an option.  Moving on, I found Viva, which offered “Task Size,” in which you bought 12 rolls that actually equaled 18 rolls, and it made me wonder why Viva employed fractions in their calculating as compared to the other companies that mostly just doubled their count. 

String Theory? 

I was starting to get the hang of the math, feeling as if the calculus class I took in college was beginning to pay off. Then, out of the blue, I came across Sparkle, which sold three roll packs equaling nine rolls that also offered “Pick a Size,” which threw me for a loop since Brawny used two as a multiplier for “Pick a Size,” and now Sparkle was using three as a multiplier for  “Pick a Size.”  String Theory couldn’t be this complicated.  But then, the mother of all mathematical computations hit me like a ton of bricks. Scott paper towels offered the MEGA ROLL pack—the Godzilla of paper towel quantities. The Mega included 30 rolls that somehow turned into 56 regular rolls of paper towels.

IF ONLY I KNEW WHAT A REGULAR ROLL OF PAPER TOWELS LOOKED LIKE!  This seemed like the obvious choice, even though the arithmetic was obviously skewed.

The Holy Grail

Then, almost as if pre-ordained, I spotted it. The Holy Grail of paper towels, a single generic roll in a plainly wrapped package that had PAPER TOWEL ROLL written across it. I was saved! I now knew what one paper roll looked like and eagerly grabbed the package, figuring this was precisely what my wife would have wanted me to buy.  I barely had time to bask in the glory of my find when a lovely older lady passed in front of me and gave me an odd look. “Is there something wrong,” I asked.  “No, I just don’t know why anyone would buy a measly roll of generic, two-ply paper towels that won’t absorb a raindrop on a sunny day,” she said, giggling as she grabbed some Brawny and left.  Deflated, I took out my phone and called my wife, “Honey, which paper towels do you want me to buy.”