100 Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About Sport, by John D Barrow

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is no longer considered smart to claim: "Oh, I'm hopeless at maths," but that doesn't mean most of us are much good at it. So certain chapters in this book, written by a professor of mathematical sciences, are a distinct challenge for those of us who haven't attempted to unravel an equation for years.

Nevertheless, there is still much here to enlighten and amuse even the most numerically challenged as John Barrow shows how Usain Bolt can shave his 100m world record without running any faster, demonstrates why left-handers have an advantage in most sports, and proves that a bowler can have the best average in both the first and second innings of a cricket match, yet still not have the best average overall.

Other topics he runs his slide-rule over (but do mathematicians still use them?) are whether the steering advantage that a cox confers is negated by his extra weight in the boat, and what is the best strategy statistically for taking penalties.

On the downside, Barrow evidently struggled to get his tally of posers up to the satisfyingly round number of 100, as some of the entries are frankly makeweights, with little to justify the subsidiary heading: "What can maths tell us about sport?"

His ruminations on the history of the marathon and what sports should be in the Olympics tempt the answer: "Not a lot, in these cases." And his thoughts on the effect of birthdates on athletes' careers have been well rehearsed in more detail elsewhere.

Still, on balance the pleasure far outweighs the padding, and a tenner for 299 pages is another satisfying number to conjure with.

Published in hardback by Bodley Head, £10