Dara O Briain School of Hard Sums

By Sean Carroll | November 11, 2012 8:50 am

This is an actual TV show in the UK (based on a Japanese program), broadcast on a channel called Dave. In it, Dara O Briain and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, along with special comedy guests, take on math puzzles (and compete against school-aged math whizzes in the process).

Watch at least the first segment, to see Dara come up with a frikkin’ ingenious solution to a geometry problem.

Could there be a show like this broadcast on TV in the US? Of course not. We only have a thousand channels, there’s no room!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mathematics, Media
  • http://www.savory.de/blog.htm Eunoia

    I did a lecture for schoolchildren recently, showing them SIX different ways to multiply 2 numbers; I should explain that only ONE way is taught here in Germany, so it was an eye-opener even for the maths teachers 😉

  • Bric

    Dara also now has a prime time BBC show, Dara’s Science Club – evolution episode coming soon!

  • FP

    Full Disclosure: Dara is a Physicist! He did his undergraduate degree at University College Dublin. Saying that, I don’t think I would have come up with that answer on live TV…..!

  • B


    Dara is a very sharp guy, probably the best comedian in the UK right now, with a B.S. in theoretical physics. Invite him over here to a meeting & see how it goes. You never know, the Beeb might be interested in doing an O’Briain science travel piece across the US. Maybe get him discussing the nature of evidence with creationists, side trips to Fermilab, Trinity test site, Kennedy Space Flight Center, STScI etc.
    Be worth pushing the idea with him.

  • http://uktv.co.uk/dave/quiz/aid/651793 Katherine Parsons

    If you enjoyed maths puzzles in the show, check out http://uktv.co.uk/dave/quiz/aid/651793. You’ll find some fun homework brain teasers to keep you busy.

  • Brett

    What really stands out to me is the overall demeanor of the show. Compare it to Mythbusters or Head Rush on American tv and you could immediately notice that every person speaking talks as though anyone listening is mature and intelligent enough to follow along; the members of the show are only slightly dumbing it down. That makes a major difference in having intelligent discussions. We could never have shows like this in America because we just wouldn’t be able to get past the point of talking to people like they’re children; either because the producers of the show are too egotistical to accept that they don’t understand it or because the hosts just lack the personality. It’s okay to make a dirty joke here and there, it’s okay to assume that the demographic is able to follow a conversation above a 5th grade level. Seriously, go watch the closest thing we have to this in America, Head Rush, and tell me you don’t notice a stark contrast between the shows. The closest thing we have to Dave is G4, but even that is designed for stoners and video game enthusiasts…I’ll get off my soap box now.

  • Chris

    Heaven forbid we get rid of Honey Boo Boo.

  • Hamish

    I watched Dara’s Science Club last week and really enjoyed it — it was about genetics and included a great demo of how to extract DNA from spit using household items. There was also a nice piece that questioned all the hype over the Human Genome Project and a great discussion about epigenetics. My only complaint was that the audience seemed to be composed entirely of attractive young people — the one exception being a chap with longish grey hair who looked very out of place. I know that Dara is reaching out to the youth, but stacking the audience in such an obvious way seemed patronising to me.

  • Biff

    Two points : Dave is not a BBC channel, they’re a funny little cable channel that started life just showing repeats of shows like Top Gear, Red Dwarf, Have I Got News For You, QI and the like. They have branched into making their own shows recently in a similar vein (including a new series of Red Dwarf :) ).

    It’s not so much about the country it’s being shown in, it’s more about the people that run the channel and the presenter. Dara is a great proselytiser of science. BBC2 (for example) hasn’t felt the need to make such a program in my living memory.

    Other point – the audience is self selecting if it’s anything like any other UK TV panel show. You register with a third party company and they send you emails detailing which shows need an audience. You pick the ones you want to see and if you’re lucky you get a ticket. They may have been guilty of shuffling the fitter members of the audience to the front, but they don’t have a stadium full of potential audience members to select. They get whoever turns up on the day.

  • Zwirko

    This week’s episode of Dara’s BBC show “Dara O Briain’s Science Club” will be looking at the work of Einstein.

  • MarcS

    “Could there be a show like this broadcast on TV in the US?”

    Does it matter? I just watched the first few episodes of this show (and I’ll catch up on the rest later) from my home in Chicago. Is it important that the show was created in the UK if I can watch it from anywhere in the world? Does it matter that no major network in the US, or anywhere else, is likely produce this when technology has enabled small companies to create this content and make it available to the whole world?

    We have the Internet. We have Minute Physics, Vihart, Smarter Every Day, Sixty Symbols, etc. (Those are just from the top of my YouTube subscriptions list, I’m sure we can expand that list here in the comments).

    We have H+, a well written and produced SciFi video serial on YouTube .

    Turn off the crappy big budget TV channels and connect your TV to the Internet. Maybe then the crappy big budget TV channels will get the hint.

  • Hamish

    Sorry about banging on about the young audience — but audiences are not always self-selecting at the BBC. There was a discussion a week or so ago about this on the BBC Radio 4 programme “Feedback” and apparently audiences are sometimes chosen for editorial reasons. Age and gender are fields on the ticket application form — I wonder if the grey-haired bloke lied about his age! I would, if I could hang-out with Dara!

  • James Gallagher

    Nice geometry quiz that first one. One of my favourites with a similar remarkably simple solution is:

    Suppose you have a round hole and several straight planks of varying widths. You must lay the planks over the hole (at any angle, so the planks may overlap) completely covering it with no gaps. Show that the combined width of the planks required must be at least equal to the diameter of the hole.


    Project the hole and planks onto the surface of a sphere of the same diameter, then each plank covers surface area = 2*pi*radius*(plank width), so the total surface area covered by the planks is at most 2*pi*radius*(combined width of planks) – hence there will be a gap if the combined width of the planks is less than the diameter of the hole since the surface area of the sphere = 2*pi*radius*diameter

  • James Gallagher

    Dara O’Briain has made appearances on the excellent BBC QI quiz show (hosted by Stephen Fry), he is famous for having points deducted an entire series after originally answering a question about triple point of water – a viewer wrote in to the show to complain that O’Briain’s answer of zero degrees centigrade wasn’t accurate (it should be 0.01)!

  • James Gallagher

    Regarding the plank problem above #13, and to save people trying to construct “simpler” proofs than a projection to a sphere surface, please see the following great article by J L King originally published in AMS Mathematical Monthly (It’s his 2nd problem in the list “Tarski’s plank problem”)


  • Richard M

    Regarding the bridges problem, the optimal solution is to make the bridges wider than they are long. Make them wide enough, and Romeo has a straight line to Juliet. (Positioning is still important; it doesn’t help if the first bridge is a mile downstream and the second is a mile upstream.)

  • Katherine Parsons

    Hi Biff, Thanks for so much your interest in the show. Dave is in fact 50% owned by the BBC. The other half belongs to the US Scripps Channels.

  • Rachel m

    Dara has a new stand up show called Craic Dealer, I found this clip online where he talks about Technology and it’s really funny, check it out!


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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