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Your Days Are Numbered

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

Some Fringe shows are a tough sell – and a ‘lecture’ based on statistics and death at 11.30am has to be one of the toughest.

But self-styled stand-up mathematician Matt Parker and writer/comedian Timandra Harkness have produced a genuinely fun and thought-provoking hour for anyone with an interest in, well, stuff.

They are an upbeat duo, but aware of the inherent risk of cheesiness involved in setting out to ‘make maths fun’. They are one false move away from being the self-consciously ‘trendy teacher’, and although they may get close to that credibility precipice, they never step over it.

Parker – a young Johnny Ball without the climate change denial – introduces the show with the sort of improv game you won’t find the Comedy Store Players doing: giving the cube root of numbers selected by the audience.

But that’s just a party trick. We are here concerned with the chances of dying of causes, and what you can do to extend or reduce your life expectancy – a topic that naturally offer the opportunity for dark wit and the odd off-colour joke that Parker and Harkness don’t pass up.

There are gimmicks galore, but the stars of the show are the facts. There is a beautiful statistical unit called the micromort, which measures a one-in-a-million chance of death.

For example, travelling by car expends one micromort every 230 miles, while for trains it’s 6,000 miles – giving an easy way to compare the comparative risks of activities. Smoking a single cigarette, for example, has a cost of 1.4 micromorts – considerably more than the one micromort associated with taking a tab of ecstasy. Yet which is illegal?

There are big political consequences here, which our hosts hint at, but leave you room to ponder for yourself. The good news is that being slightly overweight isn’t a significant issue and that you can drink much more than you think and actually benefit you. To think how much public money is spent on campaigns to change these behaviours, despite the inconsequential effect it has on lifespan, is illuminating.

Like Robin Ince’s recent science-celebrating shows, this is – ahem – dead fascinating stuff, imparted with a light, unpatronising touch. It’s certainly not just for maths geeks – though you’d probably get a few more jokes if you are in that category… and feel slightly smug about it too.

Review date: 10 Aug 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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