However many times I hear or repeat the quote that statistics is the next sexy job, I don't think anyone is seriously kidding themselves that it actually is. It may be fun to do at times and the applications are useful, interesting and broad. But it can never be sexy or interesting like, say, fashion or football. The main problem is that the thing that makes it appealing to the small proportion of the population is exactly the thing that puts most people off. It involves using your brain. Even in very mild doses, it’s at least like doing a tricky Sudoku or thinking about the subtleties of a political argument. And most people do not want to do this unless they're forced to or are being paid. Unfortunately, appealing to the beauty of the subject or the ability to reveal truth doesn't usually cut the mustard.
This is one of the reasons why we don't see maths and stats programmes replacing cooking and home buying programmes on TV.
Another problem is that mathematics is one of the hardest subjects to present on TV and only does slightly better on radio. This may be due to radio not relying on wizzy computer graphics of dinosaurs or black holes and the slightly longer attention span of the audience. But still, it's hard work to pull-off successfully.
BBC4's The Joy of Stats, presented by Professor Hans Rosling, offered a wide range of some of the many interesting and important applications of statistics with an emphasis on understanding the world. This was a success in what it aimed to do and I know plenty of people outside of professional statisticians who enjoyed watching it. This was not a programme to talk much about how maths and stats is actually done though.
The School of Hard Sums, piped-out on the cable channel Dave, seems to me to be something a little different to the usual documentary, talking-to-the-camera-in-exotic-locations-around-the world style; it is an attempt to present mathematics with the How. The format is this: Each week three toy problems are posed to the presenter Dara O’Briain; some students nestled in the corner and a guest comedian, who are supposed to tackle it from their own pragmatic, nerdy and comedic perspectives, respectively. The problems are posed by Professor Marcus Du Sautoy who holds the Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science and presented the History of Mathematics for BBC TV and radio.
Du Sautoy, although I am sure is a lovely person, is most certainly on a different wavelength to the guest comedians. He has the tone of voice that reminds me of a primary school teacher talking to her class with slow, deliberate pronunciation. This doesn't enamour the programme to the viewer, since they are most likely to associate with the non-mathematician. On occasion, when the comedians make jokes, in an attempt to save the programme from becoming nothing more than an after-school homework club, the lack of rapport makes for awkward interaction and viewing.
Dara, who clearly likes doing puzzles, is at his least charismatic because his mental focus is on the problem. He even gets visibly in a sulk when he doesn't come-up with the right answer which, although consistent with the classroom atmosphere, doesn't make for great TV.
I really think that the premise of the programme could work and the aims are commendable. This is certainly a better show than I could have made but I also think that it could be much better. The contexts of the problems are too trivial and the wider applications are only skirted-over at the end. I think that people are interested in how they affect their lives- the "so what?"- and toy problems appear pointless and intellectually indulgent. I also think that the solutions should be spelt-out more clearly so that the audience can take something away with them. The show should be about ideas and not pages of working.
That all said, I have watched and enjoyed all eight episodes. Unfortunately, I don't yet see this as the beginning of a glut of maths based shows on TV as the comedian David O'Doherty dryly proclaims on the first show, "I'm so glad I came on your maths-based show rather than one of the others."