Edinburgh Fringe 2010
On average, cows kill twenty people in the US every year. But you can cut your chances of dying from a heart attack by 50% if you drink 8 bottles of wine a week. But clearly being drunk near a cow could increase your chances of it killing you, if you were in the US that is. All this and more as the mathematics of death are explored in an entertaining and educating hour.
Apparently, the probability of my popping my clogs before the end of the Fringe is exponentially higher because of my preferred mode of transport – the bike. Or so Matt Parker and Timandra Harkness (the former a mathematical stand-up comic, the latter just a comic) told me.
This was certainly a show with a difference. Apparently, you’d a 0.000043% chance of actually dying during the 60 minutes that examined some of the more unusual as well as common ways to totter off this mortal coil. Wonderfully tangential at times and growing exponentially in terms of fascination as it progressed, it started with Matt Parker’s party trick of working out in his head the cube root of three incredibly large numbers dreamed up by randomly selected audience members.
We then moved on to examine relative causes of death using a Deathometer and a Box of Doom. Various other gimmicks and devices were employed to illustrate the relative merits of drinking, the safest means of transportation and the wide range of other potential ways that one’s life can come to an end, sticky or otherwise.
But what initially fascinated me was the array of statistics they came up with. For instance, they used the basic mathematical concept of a micromort (a one in a million chance of mortality) to reveal that six minutes in a canoe is the equivalent to taking one ecstasy tablet. However, a quick check afterwards revealed that this “revelation” as well as several others quoted appeared to have been lifted straight from the pages of Wikipedia – bit of a cheap shot guys.
Still, there was plenty of more original thought in this show and whilst you didn’t need to have degree level statistics to appreciate the subtle underlying humour, an appreciation of the finer points of probability theory at least allowed you a self-satisfied smirk or two as those around you finally cottoned on. And you get a more intellectual class of heckler as well – how often does your average stand-up have to take questions on Bayesian probability theory, for example?
Parker and Harkness trod that fine line between being engaging entertainers and just good maths teachers very well. At ease with the audience and keen to involve them at every opportunity, they used a variety of clear visual aids to illustrate the points they were making. They weren’t afraid, either, to use statistical phenomena to challenge populist (OK, tabloid press and Government) thinking. Too often we fail to read beyond a scary headline suggesting that one’s risk of dying from one cause or other will double if we drink wine, don’t drink wine and so on. The key, as they remind us, is to look at the absolute probability of dying from that cause in the first place.
They also demonstrated that Government wastes a lot of money trying to stop people doing things that may actually reduce mortality. For example, drinking in moderation and being a little overweight is actually far better for you than being teetotal and underweight. But the political implications of going down that route would probably result in the immediate termination of a number of political careers. Gets my vote then.
This was a nice little sting in the tail of an enthralling hour of generally well-researched entertainment, the by-product of which was that we all emerged better educated about what not to worry about.
Me? I’m getting straight back on my bike – after all there are lies, damned lies and statistics.