Skip to main content

Chance - Michael Brooks (Ed.) ****

New Scientist has had a great success with its books filled with extracts from the 'Last Word' column where readers pose and answer questions. Titles such as Why Don't Penguin's Feet Freeze have proved very popular for a number of years. However, while no doubt they are building up more Q&As for the next such title, the New Scientist staff have come up with a different format that brings together a collection of articles based on an interesting topic. We've already seen this with Nothing - now there's a second outing with Chance.
Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of books made up of a smorgasbord of articles by different authors. The outcome is often bitty and lacks any narrative flow - it just doesn't read well as a whole. The New Scientist books suffer a little for this problem, but the good news is that the vast majority of the articles in Chance on randomness, probability and the like are very readable in their own right, and there isn't too much overlap between them.
Where the book really shines is when dealing with the way that randomness and probability influence our everyday lives, from legal miscarriages, where probability has been misused to falsely convict, to the good old classic applications of probability like the lottery (it's a shame the number of balls has changed since the book was written) and the different games in a casino. I'm also always genuinely happy when there's a discussion of Bayes' theorem, which comes up a number of times. There are also some tantalising mentions of the kind of unlikely coincidences we've all encountered, like meeting a colleague in a strange location, though I would have liked a specific article giving these kind of events more of a heavy duty going over.

Less successful, for me, were what felt more like padding articles, brought in because there weren't quite enough topics to cover on pure probability, so the authors had to resort to rather tenuous connections of probability with biology and the statistical chances of life existing. I know some people love this kind of thing, so I understand why it's here, but it didn't work for me.
So, I reached the end a pleasantly surprised reader. It's no Dice World, but it is an interesting and entertaining collection of articles covering many areas of randomness and probability.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…