Being a Friend of More or Less
Public service broadcasting
23 September 2020
[updated Jan 2024]
BBC Radio 4's More or Less has been running since 2001. 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:
2024: I chose one of the programme's Numbers of the Year. Mine was 1,425,775,850, the overly precise population of India when it overtook China in April.
2023: A listener wrote in to query the lyrics in the song Year 3000 by Busted. Could they really visit their great great great granddaughter in 3000AD? I worked how many greats there should actually be in the song.
2023: The fertility rate in South Korea (number of babies per woman) has fallen to 0.78. This is leading to a catastrophic collapse in the number of young people. I did the maths.
2023: In the acclaimed BBC TV series 'Gold', it was claimed that every piece of gold jewellery bought in the UK since 1984 contains a little bit of Brinks Mat gold. Is this true? (Spoiler: almost certainly no!)
2023: In 2017 I recorded a More or Less episode about the names of prefixes for big numbers (Mega, Giga et al), and wondered what they would call the one after 'Exa'. This story prompted the National Physical Laboratory to formally come up with a name. Six years later, More or Less brought listeners up to date with the new official name.
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, but if it's just stamps 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.
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 (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.
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 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 why the question had gone viral. I was asked to record a short video of the solution off the cuff, and was told it would go on the More or Less website page. Next thing I knew, it had made 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.
2001-2004 Stories about why cancer clusters happen randomly; getting our heads around quadrillions; how to mathematically rank cricketers. Maybe also one about how to memorise numbers. I forget.<