*Geekspeak*, by Graham Tattersall is a
little humorous hard-covered book containing a collection of essays
about how to calculate odd things.

Tattersall,
in his attempts at making complex calculations easy, cuts too many
corners. For the sake of simplicity, he says things that are not
right.

For example, at the beginning of
**Chapter 8**, when estimating the number of people who die every
year in the UK, he states:

*You can estimate the figure quite
easily from the average lifespan in this country, which is roughly 75
years — and rising. Imagine for a moment that all births in
Britain stopped today, that from now onwards people die off and
aren’t replaced.*

*Each year more die, until, after the
time of the average lifespan of 75 years, there will be very few of
today’s 60 million people left. So, if ages are evenly spread [my
observation: a dubious assumptions, but let’s let it pass], an
average of 60 million divided by 75 people will die every year.
That’s about 800,000 per year.*

He then comments that the actual figure
is 500,000 and that the discrepancy can be explained by the fact that
our lifespan is growing.

Perhaps. But there is a problem with
his estimate due to his erroneous use of statistics: you cannot state
that the ages of death are “evenly spread” between 0 and 75
while, at the same time, claim that “very few” live beyond the
average. What average is it if there are very few people that live
longer?

Tattersall’s assumption that very few
people live longer than average is not only conceptually flawed, but
also factually wrong, because it turns out that many people happily
survive the average age of death. I looked at the

US statistics and discovered
that almost 60% of people live longer than average.

As an aside, you might wonder how it is
possible that more than half survive the average age of death. It
seems unreasonable. The reason is that the distribution is highly
skewed. I will explain it with an example that, although not
completely realistic, proves that for steeply decreasing
distributions the number of points above the average can exceed the
number of points below the average: Assume that you have a
population of 100 people and that 55 of them live 60 years, 30 live
70 years, and 15 live 75 years. The average age of death is (45 x 60
+ 35 x 70 + 20 x 75) / 100 = 66.5, with 55 people above average and
only 45 below average. Convinced now?

Another example of his
“pseudo-scientific” but confusingly imprecise presentations is in
the small “Speak Geek” section at the end of **Chapter 5**.
He states that *A man who weighs 100kg at the North Pole would
weigh only 99.65kg at the equator*.

This is roughly correct (it’s
actually close to 99.67kg). It is due to the fact that the surface
of Earth, which spins at the rate of about 40,000km every 24 hours,
is not an inertial system. We are kept in place by the presence of
gravity. Otherwise, we would keep moving on a straight line along
the tangent. From our local point of you, this appears to us as a
force directed away from the axis of the Earth. This is the same
apparent force that pushes us away from the centre of a car when we
take a curve.

So far so good. Tattersall calls the
centrifugal force an “upward ‘flinging’ force”, and that is
were I have a problem. After mentioning gravitation, he explains the
centrifugal force as follows: *The second force is upwards, and is
caused by the rotation of the Earth constantly trying to fling your
body into space like a stone on a string being swung round your head*.

This is misleading in too many ways to
be acceptable. First of all, Earth doesn’t *try* to fling us
anywhere. Secondly, the slingshot works because we exercise a pull
on it off-centre. Therefore, to compare Earth to a slingshot is not
right.

You could dismiss my objections by
saying that he explains things in a colourful way and that I am just
being my usual hair-splitter and boring self. But when he says that
the centrifugal force is *upward*, he is plainly wrong. The
centrifugal force is *outward*. It is upward at the equator,
but to say it in general is badly misleading.

Finally, I would like to report a
horrible mistake in **Chapter 7**. He starts it with the
following two sentences: *Captain Picard has been sorting out a
spot of bother on some planet or other, while the Enterprise orbits
at a safe distance. A radio command is sent to the ship: ‘Beam me
up, Scotty.’*

How can he not know that Scotty was the
chief engineer under Captain Kirk? What a shame! And he calls
himself a geek? It is painful.

I usually report problems in a book
after reading it. In this case, I couldn’t hold back after reading
about a third of it. I will probably have to report more...