Being a Friend of More or Less
Public service broadcasting
23 September 2020
[updated July 2021]
BBC Radio 4's More or Less has been running since 2001, but 2020 was the programme's 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 being introduced as a "Friend of More or Less" is a badge of honour.
Here's a run through the items I can remember being involved with over the years, starting with the most recent:
2021 It's widely claimed that there are 35 million living descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed on The Mayflower. As somebody whose in-laws are Mayflower descendants, I investigated the maths of genealogy and 'pedigree collapse'. (World Service edition).
2020 A loyal 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.
2020 Another listener wrote in to query 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 Pennsyl-vania (really!), I confirmed that the true answer is much shorter than that. I also set a pub quiz question about the number MDCLXVI.
2019 A listener wrote in to ask how far you could spread the world's entire jam supply. I concluded that there's about enough jam to cover Cornwall - foundation for the world's biggest cream tea.
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 Tim Harford and I discussed the importance of 'Back of Envelope maths' and I shared a few tips, including how Zequals can help you to do rough calculations in your head.
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.
2018 ABBA and UEFA – I explained the new ABBA system for penalty shootouts, and also described how the shootouts could be even fairer if they used the Thue Morse pattern.
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.
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, but 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.
2016 Christmas puzzle – I went into the studio to set a puzzle about 'flippable dates' for the Christmas quiz edition.
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 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 a Number 12 bus travelling from Peckham to Westminster.
2015 It was 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 into the studio 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 seen it. If I'd known that was going to happen, I'd have combed my hair. (OK, maybe not.)
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).
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.
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 https://robeastaway.com/blog/freaky-coincidences]
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.
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 the public.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.