Skip to main content

The Triumph of Numbers – I. B. Cohen ****

Numbers are central to the building of our civilization, and it might seem at first sight that I. B. Cohen’s book fills us in on their creation and use. This could also be true from the subtitle “how counting shaped modern life”. To confuse things more, the cover illustration shows Euclid, at work on geometry, so you might think it’s a history of mathematics (not quite the same thing as numbers). In fact it’s neither – Cohen’s book is really a history of statistics, and none the worse for that: it’s a fascinating subject, but perhaps the “s” word was considered too off-putting for the general reader.
Although written by an academic, this isn’t by any means a dull, uninspiring textbook of a tome. It’s short, pithy and often surprising. There is just the occasional point where Cohen has been allowed to slip into academic habits – notably in some rather uninspiring quotes and a couple of unnecessarily long lists – but for the rest it is a highly readable book, picking up on some key individuals as well as giving the broad sweep of the way statistics have influenced life.
Some of the individuals will be unknown to the general reader, like the great Quetelet, but others are big names you might not associate with the field. Perhaps the first to make an impact is King David. The Biblical consequences of David taking a count of the people had such an impact that they will still getting in the way of censuses in the 1700s. Then there were characters like Dickens and Florence Nightingale, both of whom get a chapter practically to themselves.
Dickens weighs in against statistics, championing the individual against statistical figures that make a few people’s suffering seem unimportant against the whole. It’s a technique that is still strongly used by TV. We are shown an individual’s plight and it doesn’t matter that that the company says 99% of their customers are satisfied, or the hospital says that the drug this person wants is only available for people who are (statistically) likely to benefit. The message is, the individual is more important than statistics. While in a sense it’s true, it is also misleading. Unless a medical system or a welfare system or an aid organization has infinite resources, there will always have to be prioritization and dealing statistically. It’s not nice, but the alternative is treat those who shout loudest and get most media coverage – which isn’t right either.
Florence Nightingale, who we generally remember for her nursing, comes through as a huge supporter of statistics. It’s fascinating seeing Nightingale’s demand that hospitals should be compared to see which is better and which worse on a statistical basis, that they should have standard record keeping and so forth – all requirements that have recently surfaced again in modern medicinal management. Nightingale was also a pioneer in the use of graphics to present statistics in a more approachable way.
Even if you find statistics boring, don’t be put off. This little book (just the right length for a popular science book of this kind) will make you realize how important this branch of mathematics is to everyday life, and will surprise and amuse you along the way. Not a bad achievement for a topic like this.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Peter Wothers - Four Way Interview

Dr Peter Wothers is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Chemistry at St Catharine's College. He is heavily involved in promoting chemistry to young students and members of the public, and, in 2010, created the popular Cambridge Chemistry Challenge competition for students in the UK. Peter is known nationally and internationally for his demonstration lectures and presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, titled The Modern Alchemist, in 2012. In 2014, he was awarded an M.B.E. for Services to Chemistry in the Queen's Birthday Honours.. His new book is Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf.

Why chemistry?

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with chemistry from about the age of 8.  I built up quite a substantial home laboratory with all sorts of things that are (quite rightly) banned now (such as white phosphorus) and also used to go to second-hand bookshops to find chemistry texts.  Eventually I boug…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …