The Kate Bush Conjecture


People may complain about the BBC (I certainly do from time to time), but one of the joys of a public service broadcaster is that they can produce shows which would never survive the hurly-burly, lowest-common-denominator world of commercial broadcasting. The Radio 4 programme More or Less is one such programme. It's about numbers, mathematics and statistics, and — while mathematics is certainly not my strong point, and I view statistics as a necessary professional evil — I love the show. It is gloriously, defiantly geeky and it covers some pretty interesting topics in an accurate but accessible way.

The latest episode featured a reprise of an earlier feature about the song Pi by Kate Bush. In it, Kate sings the digits of Pi, but gets some of the digits wrong. At the 51st point after the decimal point, she sings '58231' rather than the correct '58209'. I can't say that I had noticed. I would also not put it past Kate to have done it deliberately, and that it's some kind of elaborate, arcane hidden message.

Anyway, a listener (they have great listeners, about whom more later) suggested the 'Kate Bush Conjecture'1: that while the series 58231 doesn't appear in the position at which she sang it, in a number which can be infinitely expanded, it should appear at some point. So they got a mathematician on, who said that it does indeed first appear at the 17,378th position after the decimal point. So, to adapt Eric Morecambe's statement to André Previn, she was singing all the right digits, but not necessarily in the right order.

Back to the More or Less listeners... The are wonderfully pedantic. There was the listener-suggested Kate Bush Conjecture, and another wrote in to take the presenter, Tim Harford, to task for his statement that the show has loyal listeners — how did he know his listeners were loyal? Did he have empirical data? It's like being in some kind of parallel universe where members of the public always question the accuracy and scientific support for everything they are told, and where there is no need for someone like Ben Goldacre to point such things out. Oh well, for half an hour a week, I can imagine such a Utopia.

1 Which incidentally would make a great title for an episode of The Big Bang Theory

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