Cambridge News is reporting that “maths whizz” and Cambridge maths masters graduate1 William Hartston has devised a system for predicting the winner at the Grand National on Saturday. Apparently he “looked at the number of letters in a horse’s name and the name’s first letter, the number of words the name contains and the horse’s age”. His system scores horses on a scale of up to 16 points; horses with one-word names beginning with the letters S, R, M or C and consisting of eight or 10 letters score well. The system apparently also takes age into account, which seems reasonable, but not the many other factors you might expect.
Hartston is quoted saying that Seabass is favourite to win as “the only horse with consistently high scores across all four criteria as it begins with S, is a one-word name, aged 10 years and has seven letters which is only slightly short of the preferred eight”. In fact, two horses scored 13 points, but Seabass has been chosen over Tatenen due to the mysterious claim “the latter’s scoring pattern was not as consistent as that of the former”. I’m unsure if this means that Tatenen’s name has changed.
And the work was “commissioned” by William Hill.
So far, so nonsense formula based on spurious correlations, but is that all there is to it? I always find it hard to believe that these stories are written or published, but there is something about Hartston as a source that seems especially strange.
Hartston is mentioned in the article as the author of The Book of Numbers, listed on Google Books under the full title The Book of Numbers: The Ultimate Compendium of Facts About Figures. Hartston can be found online as a former professional chess player turned author (certainly looks like the same chap) of books with titles like ‘The Encyclopedia Of Pointless Information’. Apart from chess, his Wikipedia page describes him as a “Cambridge-educated mathematician and industrial psychologist”. On the latter, it claims he worked with Meredith Belbin, of Belbin team roles fame, a fact confirmed on the Belbin website.
A search on Google News finds eleven results in different sources covering the Grand National story, including the national press, the earliest of which was 2nd April. Was this a mis-timed April Fools joke, or have I still got my head in that mode from our outing?
A review of Steven Strogatz’s The Joy Of X written by Hartston for the Express seems well considered, and points out that “at its heart, mathematics is an abstract concept for encoding reality and making its patterns predictable”, and that “many people are frightened by formulas, numbed by numbers and generally mystified by maths”. The Grand National prediction is either contributing to mystifying its audience, or satirising it. Looking at this photo, which accompanies the Cambridge News article, both the grin and the ‘maths’ on the piece of paper behind him, I’m left with the distinct impression that this may be an elaborate joke. Or maybe I’m just too trusting.
Original story: Cambridge University maths whizz predicts Grand National winner.