Peto’s Paradox
Personal Life

Peto’s Paradox

May 23, 2019   |    2272


Earlier this month, I received a text message from my friend, Mohd Anisul Karim (aka MAK), inviting me to a fancy formal dinner at his college. Well, college formals are pretty common in Oxford and without thinking much about it, I said yes. After all, we enjoy dressing up for an evening and eating fancy food. 


Days went by and I did not think much about the invitation until last week when I was having coffee in the common room of Teddy hall (St Edmund Hall) and heard a conversation of MAK’s, regarding a formal dinner at the high table.


High table? Woah!


You have to be “someone in Oxford” to dine at a high table. How come MAK invited us for dinner at the high table? What is happening?


21 May 2019, Tuesday. I was having a rough time in the lab. The clock ticked 5 pm and I left John Radcliffe Hospital on Oxford Hill. Cycling back home to the city centre, I opened my closet and dusted my “Sub-fusc”, which is Oxford’s fancy gown that makes you look like a discounted Harry Potter. Suddenly, I got another text from MAK asking me to help him wear a bow-tie. Once again, this dinner seemed different. Why would lazy-ass MAK go through the trouble of wearing a bow-tie?


I started to formulate some hypotheses in my brain. 


Hypothesis-01: MAK got a post-doc offer and he was going to announce this good news.  


Hypothesis-02: MAK was getting married. This would be a very predictable hypothesis, by the way.


As the evening approached, the suspense started to build. At 6:40 pm, I entered the common room of Teddy Hall along with MAK. A lovely lady poured us two drinks. We began to talk about the week until MAK had the urgency to urinate wearing his sub-fusc. He left. Weak!


I continued to enjoy the warmth of the early summer, sipping from my cup and singing ain’t life so sweet? But, life was about to get sweeter.


In about ten minutes, MAK reentered the room. This time, he was not alone. A man with an aura of wisdom walked towards me wearing his colourful tie. Extending his hand for a good shake, he smiled at me and said, “Hi, I am Richard Peto. Most people think I am dead.”


I don’t care what most people think. At that moment, all I cared about was the fact that Richard Peto was now standing in front of me with the possibility of joining us for dinner. But, wait!


Who is Richard Peto?


Richard Peto is ‘Sir’ Richard Peto. A Knight, a fellow of the Royal Society, a Professor of Statistics in Oxford. He is one of those two guys (the other being Richard Doll) who wrote “smoking is harmful to health” on every cigarette pack, not literally though. They showed the world with statistical evidence that you can avoid death in the western world (to a good extent) by just quitting smoking. Well, it worked! 


But why am I so excited about this statistician who worked on smoking? Well, the reason is called “Peto’s Paradox”. My research on the Naked Mole Rats can often be explained using Peto’s Paradox, a conundrum introduced by Richard Peto in the late 1970s. Peto showed that though a human life is 30 times longer than that of a mouse, with 1000 times more cells in its body, a human doesn’t get more cancer than a mouse. This should mean that human stem cells are a billion times more cancer-proof than that of the mouse. My research wants to show that a Naked Mole Rat’s stem cell will do even better than a human’s! 


Yes! My Ph.D. research starts with Peto’s Paradox. And, at 6:55 pm on the 21st May 2019, Sir Richard Peto was standing in front of me, extending his arm for a shake while my legs were slightly (read vigorously) trembling in excitement. Reciprocating the gesture of the simple harmonic oscillation of the pair of hands, the only words that I managed to fumble were “Hi, I am Shamir. A pleasure to meet you.”


MAK was looking at me enjoying my expressions. It was like a child meeting the real Santa. No! It’s better than that. Santa brings useless gifts to children during the holidays. Sir Richard Peto’s research made sure their moms and dads lived a healthy and long life. That’s a much better gift to those children, right?


Coming back to reality, I understood that MAK is doing his Ph.D. in the same department where Peto is a professor. I have mentioned on countless occasions to MAK, about my desire to meet this famous epidemiologist. Today (24 May) is my birthday and MAK decided to bring Peto for dinner as my early birthday surprise! I could not understand what I had done to deserve this?


In about 10 minutes, Hassan Saad Ifti, our fourth member of the (k)night,  joined us in Teddy Hall and we walked towards the Senior Common Room for another round of drinks. MAK exhibited his arsenal of drinks and Richard made his choice (from this point, we were calling each other by the first name). With a smirk on his face, MAK pretended to open the bottle only to embrace a glorious failure. But, there was a Knight to rescue us! Richard stepped in and pronounced the label on the bottle in a sexy French accent and there was a “pop”. The bottle had been opened. As the drinks flowed, conversations grew. 


Of course, he is an intelligent man. No doubt about that. But, Richard was interesting too. His knowledge is not just limited to statistics. He has read poetry, history, politics, all of which were reflected on the course of our conversations. Then, annoyingly, someone interrupted our good time and said: “the dinner is about to start.” 


We entered the dining area as everyone was standing there for the last 4 high table members to take their seats. MAK screamed at me saying “You guys need to hurry. They are waiting for us.” When the master of the college screamed the Latin phrase “Benedictus Benedicat” (May the blessed one give a blessing), we sat down on the high table allowing everyone else in the hall to follow our lead. 


The pretty waitresses of Teddy Hall brought more bottles to fuel our conversation. I reached towards the sparkling water. As I was pouring mine, I offered to pour Richard a glass too. The wise man replied, “No, I want more wine!” That was the start of dinner.


The starter was meaty, the conversation was witty. Richard asked me and Hassan about our Ph.D. work. I don’t know how much of us he would remember. He kept talking about his views on statistics with his lively sense of humour. As the main course was served, I ended up asking the sensitive question: 


“So, Richard, what do you think about the p-value?” 


(If you don’t know what p-value is, that’s fine. P-value is a mathematical way to show how significant a difference is in a hypothetical model. I probably have just given the worst ever explanation of a p-value.)


Richard and MAK entered a heavy argument. Richard tried to explain how the p-value has been misused and misinterpreted while MAK tried his best to focus on the bright side of it. The intellectual banter reached its climax with the one-liner of the night by the Knight:


“Look, the only thing p-value is going to complement is your intelligence.” (Sir Richard Peto)


Laughter broke on the high table of Teddy Hall. 


The main course was a delicious cut of medium-rare rump stake. Hassan could not resist the temptation of Instagramming the photo until he was interrupted by Richard— “Young man, that’s not allowed on the dining table. I don’t know you. So, I get to be rude to you.” Once again, we laughed.


As I was cutting the steak piece with my fork and knife, I talked about the research data from Cancer Research UK that shows a high cancer incidence amongst red-meat consumers. Richard was skeptical about the research. I could tell that his passion for his science was intense. He is militant about finding the truth, not statistical significance. The conversation took an intense turn as we got to know that Richard is now suffering from stage-4 colorectal cancer. As a Ph.D. student who is working on the same type of cancer, I told him, “Maybe my research will be helpful for you.” Richard took a sip from his glass and replied, “Statistically speaking, I would not count on you!”


The round of laughter followed.


What I loved about this man is the positive energy that he emanates even while suffering from a lethal disease. While we were talking about his chemotherapy experience, he jokingly mentioned, “Look on the good side, I now get a disability parking space.” That’s the man who has lived a good life and seemed satisfied with it. 


As the dinner was approaching towards the dessert, I asked, “So, Richard. Tell me, which life experiences are the most memorable to you?” “Well, I would not tell you that now. You need to get me more drunk for that.”, replied the professor. In our mind, we all said, “Challenge accepted.” 


After the dessert, the high table members were invited for a second dessert in the historic old library of teddy hall. But, there was an extra rule. You can not sit next to a familiar face. So, we lost Richard. But, there were a few lucky people awaiting a dose of the knight. 


Richard was smooth with the women. As the man quoted poem after poem, girls gathered near him- struck by his aura. I remember this lovely lady reaching for Richard saying, “Which college are you in? We shall move you to this one.” I thought in my mind, “Yes, keep dreaming about it.”


After that fancy second dessert, Richard grew a pair with a Chinese academic. That guy ended up saying, “You know more about Chinese history than I do. I am learning so much about my country from you.” 


And why not? Richard is also a traveler. He has been to many countries in our part of Asia. Even Richard’s family ran a restaurant in the Covered market of Oxford called “Sasi’s Thai” (probably named after his wife). One of his sons lives in Thailand and Richard mentioned that he would be going there next month. At this moment, MAK showed the audacity to ask, “You have been to India, Thailand, China. Why not Bangladesh?” Richard looked to his new Chinese friend and replied-


“I want to. But, you see, all these Bangladeshi people keep wearing bow-ties.” 


Again, Richard cracked us up.


One story I heard about Richard Peto is that he has a tie from Richard Doll which is very dear to him. But, on that day, Richard was not wearing it. As we asked about it, he reached for his pocket and pulled out that famous tie. Wow! He always carries it with him. Then came the story of the current tie that he was wearing. Richard went to the Chinese Embassy in London the previous week for a visa application. During his trip, he went to a restaurant for Fish and Chips and, of course, ended up having a delightful conversation with a complete stranger. That lucky guy! The stranger, who happened to be a doctor, pulled his tie out from his neck and gifted it to Richard as a piece of memory to remember him by. Richard was wearing that memory, on his night out with us with a wonderful story behind it. 


I wished that night to be eternal. But, at about 11 pm, Richard wanted to go home.  We all said goodbye. As we walked out of Teddy Hall on Queen’s lane, Richard asked me, “Where do you live?”. “Balliol College in the city centre”, I replied. As he would be walking towards Jericho, we all decided to walk together. One thing I could not help noticing was his penchant for the famous streets of Oxford. He was a bit sad as we did not walk through the queen’s lane. But, our man took the lead and made a turn on Radcliffe Camera and we walked towards the Sheldonian. 


11.30 pm. Broad Street, Oxford. MAK lives here. I live close by. Hassan has to cycle quite a bit to return to the village he comes from. Richard showed us a point on Broad Street where people used to be burnt alive in the ancient era. I have walked on it so many times in my life without knowing the cruel history beneath the stone. Well, Richard knows. This year is his 50th year in Oxford. A half-century of the wise man in the city of knowledge. And he knows this city better than most.


As we thought we were about to say goodbye, Richard offered to show us some interesting streets in Oxford that we had never seen before. We said, “Hell Yeah.” The night was just starting to get better as we walked down the Ashmolean Museum to take a right turn followed by a left, only to stumble upon an alley of serene peace that three Oxford Ph.D. Students and one knighted academic decided to stall on at midnight. 


Finally, we reached Jericho. Walking down the little Clarendon street, we reached a pub called “Havana” which was still open. MAK decided to ask for another round and Richard gave in. We entered Havana.


Pulling out a 20-pound note, he asked the lovely bartender to serve us a good (or cheap) bottle. What was actually served on the porch of Havana that night was a memory to cherish forever. We talked about the Hubble Telescope and how Richard had reached out to get a photo of the Hubble Field which he promised to email us later. At about 1 am, the pub-owners decided to shut the place down and we had nowhere else but to go home. 


We said our good-byes one more time (the third time of the night). Richard told MAK, “Your friends are not that bad.” Ifti and I felt as though that was the best compliment of our lives. Richard walked down Walton Street and we three took the little Clarendon one. As we reached Broad Street, I hugged MAK for giving me the best birthday gift ever- A night with a Knight. I would never forget this until my last day.


The next morning, I had to rush to London for a visa application. As I was quickly checking my emails on the phone, I found a Hubble field photo in my mailbox with the sender name “Richard Peto Personal.” Along with the photo, there was a paper with the title “Mediators of the association between religion and mortality”. The email ended with a comment on the paper:


“Less interestingly, here’s VanderWeele’s paper on the “mediators” of the “effect” of religion and spirituality on mortality. Read it and weep!”



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