In 1960, the journal Science published a physicist's calculation that world population would reach infinity in the year 2026. The physicist, Heinz von Foerster of the University of Illinois at Urbana, said the forecast emerged from a formula that accurately described world population growth for the prior 2,000 years.

The "doomsday formula" elicited much criticism from demographers and a degree of ridicule from, among others, the "Pogo" comic strip.

Now, according to a George Washington University researcher, there may be reason to rethink the criticisms. World population in the quarter-century since the forecast has been running well ahead of the doomsday rate.

Stuart A. Umpleby of GW's Department of Management Science said the formula estimated a world population in 1980 of 3.969 billion. According to the Population Reference Bureau, there were 4.414 billion people in 1980.

"Hence, 20 years after the equation was proposed and after many years of family planning efforts, the equation had proven to be drastically conservative," Umpleby wrote in a letter to the editor of Science, published in the Sept. 25 issue. "We were then 445 million people ahead of schedule!"

Of course no one, including the original proponent, thinks population can reach infinity. The formula does not take into account such limiting factors as space or food supply, which have not been significant over the long run so far but would come into play as population growth accelerates. The effects of these constraints would appear, if the formula holds up, well before 2026.