Thursday 23 November 2017

Stat's what I call a fascinating look at huge numbers

Kirsty Young
Kirsty Young
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4, Fri 9am) has been on the air for 75 years. This is incredible. Seventy-five years! That can't be too much less than the whole time radio itself has been on the go.

Speaking of factoids and years, I've written a radio column, in this and other publications, since 1999, and amazingly, I think this is the first time I've covered Desert Island Discs.

Of course, I've listened to it over the years; it's a radio institution at this stage, meant with all possible respect. Still, time for this classic programme to be bestowed with the highest honour available: mention by me.

As it happened, this week's Desert Island Discs was excellent. Kirsty Young's guest was cancer specialist Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Born in India and resident in New York, he's one of those impossibly accomplished people who seem to belong in fiction more than real life: cancer specialist, Pulitzer-winning author, Oxford and Harvard grad, trained as a classical singer, currently the Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University.

Plus he's handsome and has cool hair and wrote a fabulous book last year called The Gene. You'd hate the guy, only Mukherjee seems to be thoroughly nice on top of everything else.

He was also hugely interesting, his between-songs discussion with Young covering disease, genetics, medicine, family and much else. More than interesting, really: if you're interested in pondering the great questions of human existence, this - that omega point where life literally meets death - is a good place to start.

Music included Indian classical, sitar and Billie Holiday's All of Me, introduced by Mukherjee with the wonderful line, "It's as if she doesn't sing with the voice, but some other part of her body".

How much is a zillion? That's the question posed on More or Less (BBC Radio 4, Fri 4pm), an entertaining show in which Tim Harford "explains and debunks" the numbers and stats thrown at us, on the news or from politicians or simply in normal life.

So this week, with the expert assistance of Helen Zaltzman and Dr Stephen Chrisomalis, the show explained "indefinite hyperbolic numbers": words we use to convey great size, but which don't actually identify a specific number.

The smallest such word is "umpteen", standing for a reasonably large amount of something, but relatively small. When you want to cite a very, very big number, you might say zillion, gillion or squillion.

And we can add prefixes such as ka, ba or ga to convey an even bigger size: a bazillion is definitely bigger than a zillion in our minds. But isn't it strange, as Chrisomalis pointed out, that here we have two words, neither of which is an actual number, yet we consider one to be larger than the other.

We also use actual numerals, like thousand, in a hyperbolic way, ie "If I've told you not to do that once, I must have told you a thousand times…" I know I do, anyway. I've done it millions of times. Literally.

I love this sort of stuff. It's a quintessentially BBC Radio 4 idea, the kind that makes you say in conversation, "Oh I heard this really interesting thing on radio, you should check it out…"

Also interesting was Eamon Delaney's recollections of the fall of Communism on Bobby's Late Breakfast (Newstalk, Sun 9am). Delaney, as a former member of the Irish Diplomatic Corps, was ideally placed to witness history being made.

If you'd told him, he said, in the late eighties that Eastern Europe would be democratic, he wouldn't have believed it. (Not in a bazillion years…?)

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