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Dr John Haigh, RIP

A master of statistics who wore his expertise with modesty

I can pinpoint the exact date when I first met John Haigh.  It was Thursday 25th November 1999.

How do I know?  Because it was the first day of the first Test match between South Africa and England.  I can even tell you the score.  England were poised at a desperate 2 for 4 (yes that's 2 runs for 4 wickets), and Michael Vaughan had just come in to play his first Test innings.

At the time John was still a full time lecturer in Statistics at the University of Sussex.  He and I were both due to be giving talks at a big sixth form maths event in London that day, and there were nearly 1,000 teenagers waiting for us in the auditorium.  That didn't prevent us from discussing something even more important while we waited in the green room: the malaise of the England cricket team.

Another incident that morning sealed our friendship.  The speaker who was due to be giving the third talk of the day hadn't turned up, and the organiser was in a panic.  How could she fill the gap? John and I had an idea. Why not improvise a 40 minute talk, based on 'spare' material that we hadn't used in our main talks?  And that is what we did, discovering in the process that adrenaline can be an amazing enabler.

As well as our shared interest in sport, particularly cricket, John and I also found we had a mutual fascination in television gameshows, and particularly the tactics of how to play them optimally.  We spent many an hour discussing (usually via email) the subtleties of when to bank in The Weakest Link, and whether it was worth phoning a friend in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

In fact it was after an episode of Millionaire that John gave me one of my favourite maths case studies. I have used it countless times since.  A contestant in the show had made it to £16,000, but had used up all his lifelines except for asking the audience. 

The £32k question was:  "Which ocean has an area of 4.7 million square miles? (a) The Arctic  (b) The Atlantic  (c) The Indian or (d) The Pacific".  The contestant asked the audience. They voted for the Pacific, but not convincingly, so he decided to take the money. 

John rang me up later that evening.  "Did you see Millionaire earlier, and that question about the ocean?" he asked.  (I hadn't.)  "The guy could have worked it out with a few basic estimation skills," he said, and John proceeded to tell me how he'd figured out in his head that The Atlantic Ocean has an area of about 30 million square miles, which means that the only ocean small enough to be 4.7 million square miles must be the Arctic.

Although John was a master of back-of-envelope calculations, his speciality was probability.  For twenty years, he was the rock that I relied on when I was faced with a difficult probability challenge where I either needed a second opinion or, in some cases, where I was unable to work out the answer at all.  For example, there was an accountant who spotted that the hymn numbers at a Sunday church service had used all the digits from 0 to 9 exactly once - what were the chances?  John set up a computer program to simulate this scenario, and was able to come up with a plausible answer.  (We wrote a joint article about it, which you can read here: An Almighty Coincidence .)

In the early 2000s, John asked me if I was interested in writing a book about the maths of sport with him.  Of course I was!  How to take a Penalty was published in 2005.  An updated edition, under the better title The Hidden Maths of Sport, came out in 2011 (and a new edition will be coming out in June 2021).  Although my name comes first on the cover (by virtue of my surname's position in the alphabet), the credit for that book goes mainly to John.  The insights into the maths of the dartboard, the game theory of penalty-taking and the anomalies of gymnastics scoring were all his, and in several chapters my contribution was merely changing the occasional paragraph to be more layman friendly, and adding in some headings.

My last interaction with John was just a week ago.  A World Service edition of BBC Radio's More or Less asked me to work out how unlikely it was that no teams from the same country had ended up playing each other in the last 16 of the Europa Cup.  I did some calculations, but as usual with sporting probability questions, I asked John for his opinion.  He replied promptly as always, reminding me of an earlier occasion when a different European football draw had to be re-done because the only remaining teams were ineligible to play each other.  He told me he'd get back with his calculations - but alas his long-standing illness overtook him before he could do so.  He died yesterday.

John was one of the most modest and honorable people I've ever had the pleasure of working with.  He wore his expertise lightly, and was quick to give credit to others rather than take it for himself.  He had a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour, and I picture him now over a pint of beer, joking about the struggles of his favourite football team, Huddersfield Town.  I will miss John's wisdom and companionship.  More than anything, I will miss his tactical insights into whichever TV gameshow is next to top the ratings.