Skip to main content

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now? – Paul J. Nahin ***

There are few mathematical subjects that are better at tantalising and intriguing than problems involving probability. In part because our natural grasp of probability is so weak, the outcomes of probability questions have an unrivalled ability to take us by surprise, to the extent that some simply deny that the outcome can possibly be right. I remember when the Monty Hall problem was first publicised a number of us were so unhappy with the right answer that we wrote computer simulations to see if the counter-intuitive solution was correct. (It was.)
This is doubly apt when looking at Paul Nahin’s book as it features regular examples of computer code to check out results, and it covers a number of other problems that were publicised by Marilyn vos Savant in Parademagazine, the same source that made Monty Hall famous in the first place. Here though, sadly, Ms vos Savant is on the losing side, as Nahin points out a number of errors in her columns that have covered probability problems.
For the general reader, this book is a real mixed bag. There are some absolute gems – problems that you can really get your teeth into and have fun with (and then often find you took entirely the wrong path), but there are also rather too many that could only excite a mathematician. Questions like ‘Given a unit square, and two points picked at random on the square, what’s the average distance between the points?’, I’m afraid does not get me even faintly interested. It’s also the case that the computer programs, in a language called MATLAB that I suspect is only available to mathematicians, are unlikely to be valuable to most readers (they would have been more accessible if he’d used Excel’s programming language, I suspect, but even then, most readers would simply ignore them).
So I think this a book that the general reader has to be prepared to skip through parts of. But it’s well worth that effort, because the bits that are of wider interest are genuinely captivating and surprising. If you aren’t scared off by formulae and probability intrigues you, give it a go – you won’t be disappointed.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…