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Being a Friend of More or Less

Public service broadcasting

BBC Radio 4's More or Less has been running since 2001, but there's little doubt that 2020 has been its annus mirabilis, holding the government to account by challenging the statistical information that they put out about Covid-19.

I've been involved as a guest on the programme since the very first series, and the label "Friend of More or Less" is one that I treasure.

Here's a run through the items I can remember being involved with over the years.

2002  How do the Cricket rankings work? – a cricketing friend and I sat in a pub with the producer Michael Blastland and over a pint, we discussed the maths behind how Test cricketers are ranked.

2004  Why geographical clusters of cancer cases are not surprising – I discussed why clusters are an inevitable feature of randomness, and how people find it hard to simulate being random because we don't realise that (say) a run of four heads is not surprising if you toss a coin 30 times.

2005   What are the best tactics for taking a penalty?  - we recorded the item in a dusty park near BBC TV centre, with Andrew Dilnot taking penalties against me.  I didn’t save any.

2006  What is a “Quadrillion”? – there was a news story about money that mentioned quadrillions, so I went in to explain how big this number is. 

2007   Where’s the best property to buy in Monopoly? – I think this was the Christmas edition of Tim Harford’s first series as presenter, talking about classic Christmas games.  Short answer: Buy Vine Street and the other orange properties  

2010   What are the new methods for doing arithmetic? – shortly after publication of Maths for Mums & Dads, I was brought in to explain the grid method of multiplication to a small group of slightly maths-phobic loyal listeners.  The item generated a lot of reaction from listeners.

2011  Who’s the best sportsman in the world? – this was an ‘essay’ in which I discussed which criteria might be used to figure out who is the current greatest sportsman.  I think I concluded that it was Sachin Tendulkar at the time. 

2012   Alastair Cook and cricket rankings – Tim Harford and I discussed how statistics can compare Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen.  I was asked which of these two batsmen would get a century the next week.  I predicted Cook.  He duly delivered.  [Here's my blog about what happened next]

2013   How many living descendants does Richard III have? – When Richard III bones were unearthed in Leicester, a group of ‘descendants’ claimed he should be buried in York.  I did the maths to show that vast numbers of the public are equally related to King Richard, so (we?) should have our say too. This story was cited as evidence by the pro-Leicester camp, and I'm pleased to say they won. 

2014  The daughter of a listener in Derbyshire asked: What was the chance of Charlie winning a golden ticket from Willy Wonka? –  I went to her primary school, and explained the maths behind golden tickets to a class of ten year olds.  (By fortunate coincidence I was already on holiday in Derbyshire that week).  - 2015

2015  The GCSE question that sent Twitter into meltdown – a fairly routine GCSE maths question about ‘Hannah’s Sweets’ went viral with messages from teenagers saying how impossible the question was.  I went in to explain the solution, and to discuss why it had gone viral.  I was asked off the cuff to record a short video explaining the solution, and was told it would go on the More or Less website page.  Next thing I knew, it had rocketed onto the BBC’s HOME page.  Friends across the world contacted me to tell me they’d just seen it.  - 2015

2016  Do most London cyclists wear helmets? – to coincide with the publication of Maths On The Go, I demonstrated how bus journeys can be used as an opportunity to teach statistics to children.  We recorded the item with three children on the top deck of Number 12 bus from Peckham to Westminster. 

2016  Scottish referendum – a survey from Lord Ashcroft widely quoted in the media had claimed that 75% of Under 18s had voted Yes in the Scottish Referendum.  I pointed out that this was based on a sample of 12 people, and was therefore an extremely unreliable figure that lacked credibility.

2016   Christmas puzzle – I went into the studio to set a puzzle about 'flippable dates' for the Christmas quiz edition. 

2017   Giga, Mega, Tera -  As computers move towards terabytes of storage, I did a light-hearted run through with Tim Harford of all the prefixes and where they came from.   This was a really fun item, and it was a shame that it was only used on the World Service.  

2017   What does the Hurricane scale mean – and is “Category 5” always worse than a “4”? - my segment explaining the factors involved in measuring hurricanes went out on the World Service edition, but was cut from the UK domestic edition. 

2018  The Lazy Student formula – a listener wrote in asking how few topics he could get away with revising while still being sure he’d get three questions in the exam on topics he knew.  I came up with a formula. 

2018   ABBA and EUFA – I explained the new ABBA system for penalty taking, and that if they wanted something even fairer, why they should use the Thue Morse pattern ABBA BAAB instead 

2018  Golf coincidence – two women scored holes in one at the same hole in a ladies golf tournament.  I worked out how unlikely this was.  The story didn’t make the UK edition, but instead was used as a World Service episode. 

2019   Back of envelope - Tim Harford and I discussed the importance of 'Back of Envelope maths' and I shared a few tips, including Zequals 

2019.   How many families have one child in nursery and another in upper primary? – I did the calculations as part of an Election Special investigating a Labour policy on funding childcare

2019   A loyal listener wrote in to ask how far you could spread the world's entire jam supply.  I did the calculations and concluded that there's about enough jam to cover Cornwall.

2020   A listener wrote in to resolve an argument about the answer given in a pub quiz, which had claimed that a pencil could draw a line 35 miles long.  Backed up by evidence from an experiment done in Pennsylvania (really!), I confirmed that the true answer is much less than that, and also set a puzzle about the number MDCLXVI.

2020  Another listener wondered whose face has appeared on the most stamps, coins and notes. After some research and back-of-envelope calculations I concluded that in the present day Gandhi wins, ahead of The Queen and Chairman Mao.  However when it comes to stamps only, the Queen has the other two licked.