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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Arts: Primate numbers

In April and May this year the hugely popular Uncaged Monkeys show toured the UK, with the subtitle of ‘the first ever national science tour celebrating the universe and many of the wonders that lie within it’. The show was a fusion of stand-up comedy and mini-lectures on various subjects that the presenters were clearly passionate about, providing abundant laughs and a plethora of amazing facts.

Robin Ince was an excellent compere. His most memorable quote was that every time you are stuck on a train, just look outside the window and marvel at the fact that in that view you can see more life than is known to exist anywhere else in our solar system (this doesn’t quite work when stuck on the underground!). Ince provided an entertaining entrée and subsequent witty fillers throughout the show.

Professor Brian Cox radiated charisma and intellect when he took control of the stage, true to his already much-publicised blend of brains and beauty. He eloquently and untiringly lectured on the Big Bang, relativity, particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider (mockingly referred to as a “black hole machine” by Ince, given the protests from the public upon its opening). Cox’s fascination with the cosmos was palpable, and one couldn’t help but be drawn into the space-time web of wonderment. He even managed to make the concept of time travel comprehensible. More abstruse, however, were the long formulae displayed that attempted to explain the matter structure of our universe.

Simon Singh started his act playing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, first in its usual form and then backwards with the song’s alleged hidden Satanic references displayed on screen, demonstrating that our minds interpret observations differently depending on the expectations we have been set. The point of this experiment was to convey that we should question without having preconceived ideas. He also electrocuted a gherkin onstage to show the orange glow due to its high sodium content when explaining how we can experimentally determine the type of light we should see from stars.

Matt Parker — a stand-up mathematician and self-titled ‘number ninja’ with a wonderfully relaxed style on stage — performed some maths tricks, with one involving figuring out the last number of a barcode. In the post-interval Q&A session someone asked him what number she was thinking of, to which he quipped “a rational one” then proceeded to explain that actually it ought to be an irrational one given that there are more irrational numbers than rational ones.

A welcome break in the heavy material was the musical performance by comedienne Helen Arney, who sang a couple of charmingly curious songs while playing the ukulele. It was refreshing to listen to a female physicist’s unique take on the oddities of our universe.

Writer Alan Moore offered a different angle, discussing more arcane and far-fetched potential consequences of modern science. He provided some very funny material around snake worship (linked to Paris Hilton!) and the possibility that our universe could be a computer simulation of someone else’s, which in turn may be a computer simulation of someone else’s, and so on.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman used wit and PowerPoint in equal measures to illustrate optical illusions that can rather distort the view of reality. His parting remark on the ‘many-worlds’ theory was that if you think you are unhappy in this world, there may be an unhappier you elsewhere in another universe.

The penultimate presenter, before the second appearance by Brian Cox, was Dr Ben Goldacre, who gave an impassioned delivery on understanding the biases present in various scientific studies. He mentioned unbalanced pharmaceutical drug trials where a drug is favourably compared to rival ones or its predecessors by using different/ incorrect dosages to manipulate the results.

He explained how some tabloids publish unfounded stories on the correlation between certain food items and certain diseases. Showing a graph of a funnel plot, he demonstrated how the results of certain studies may have been truncated so as to show only the flattering findings.

He referred to this as “publisher’s bias”, with his punchline being that this plot had actually come from a study on biases present in the results shown by publishers, thus the irony of finding a publisher’s bias in a study on publishers’ biases.

Brian Cox made the final appearance, leaving us with the picture Pale Blue Dot that was taken by Voyager 1 as it looked back on Earth, accompanied by a recording by the astronomer Carl Sagan. This finale of the tiny pixel representing Earth as a mere speck in the cosmos was a humbling and fitting ending to a rather long but most definitely awe-inspiring evening.

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Sonal Shah is a general insurance actuary working in the Prudential Insurance Risk Department at the Financial Services Authority.