Skip to main content

101 Bets You Will Always Win - Richard Wiseman ***

I'm a sucker for the kind of 'how can you do that?' challenge that featured regularly as ways to win bets on the TV show Hustle - so when I saw Richard Wiseman's new book I was so enthusiastic to lay my hands on it, I bought it with my own money. (Thankfully at an over 50% discount, as the list price is very steep for what it is.) I certainly enjoyed it, but it was also a little bit of a let down.
Psychologist Wiseman has made something of a speciality of 'quirkology' - the psychology of human quirks that lies behind our ability to trick each other, so when the subtitle promised 'the science behind the seemingly impossible' I expected plenty of good pop psychology on why we were taken in by this kind of thing. But in practice the slim book is mostly the tricks with just a few bits of interpolated trivia - the only sizeable bit of fact was about the history of the safety match. 
I read the entire book on a 45 minute train journey, though without, of course, trying out the betting tricks. I'm not sure whether I will or not - the trouble is, although the tricksters of Hustle look extremely smooth when they pull this kind of trick in a bar, in reality you are likely to look something of a prat if you try it on your friends down the pub, and most of us wouldn't try it on complete strangers, the only way to successfully make use of it to win money. Sadly, most likely, we will be exposed to children doing these tricks on us and will have to seem pleased and amazed. The only one I might try is the hundred-and-first trick, Wiseman's confessed favourite. Strictly speaking it's a magic trick rather than a psychological one, as it requires a prepared misleading prop - but it is very entertaining.
Of the main meat of the book, there were a lot of old favourites - I recognised about half of them. These included that old chestnut of the repeated word on a line break (spot what's wrong with this
this sentence), the only novelty being the word wasn't 'the', and the 'balance a glass on three knives balanced themselves on three glasses' trick which appeared in the copy of de Bono's Five Day in Thinking that I was given as a present 50 years ago. There were also rather too many problems that required irritatingly unnecessary accuracy of language - for instance, one where the mark is challenged to balance an orange on the top of a glass that is on a table bottom upwards. When they balance the orange, you claim to win as they've put the orange on the bottom of the glass, not the top.
Even so, there were enough novel challenges here that I still think the book is worth buying (and inevitably it would make an excellent stocking filler), especially if you try some of them out. I don't know if it's because I'm an impoverished writer, but I was particularly taken with some of the tricks involving bank notes, and both static electricity and surface tension have roles to play in some of the more imaginative challenges.
Don't expect, then, that these are going to be tricks that blow your mind. They mostly are done with everyday items (though I would probably avoid doing the ones involving lighting matches in a smoke-free pub) - in some the only prop is the human body - but it is entertaining to challenge yourself to work out the solution, where the challenge is not just 'do this' where you can't. And in some cases it's definitely worth having a go, even if it's probably best to do so solo to avoid embarrassment. 


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Case Against Reality - Donald Hoffman ***

It's not exactly news that our perception of the world around us can be a misleading confection of the brain, rather than a precise picture of reality - everything from optical illusions to the apparent motion of video confirms this - but professor of cognitive science Donald Hoffman goes far beyond this. He wants us to believe that spacetime and the objects in it are not real: that they only exist when we perceive them. It's not that he believes everything to be totally illusory, but suggests that the whole framework of the physical world is a construction of our minds.

To ease us into this viewpoint, Hoffman gives the example of the Necker cube - the clever two-dimensional drawing apparently of a cube which can be seen in two totally different orientations. Calling these orientations 'Cube A and Cube B' he remarks that our changing perceptions suggest that 'neither Cube A nor Cube B is there when no one looks, and there is no objective cube that exists unobserve…

The Body - Bill Bryson ****

I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson's travel books - he is a superb storyteller, and in the best parts of his science writing, this ability to provide fascinating facts and intriguing tales shines through.

After taking on the whole of science in his first book, here he focuses in on the physiology, anatomy and diseases of the human body. Bryson does so with his usual light, approachable style, peppering the plethora of facts (and 'don't know's - it's amazing how much we still don't know about the workings of the body) with the little nuggets you can't help but share and stories of some of the odd and, frankly, horrifying goings on in the history of medicine.

So, for example, Bryson throws in 'The chin is unique to humans and no one knows why we have one.' He speculates that it might be just that we 'find a good chin dashing' and quotes a Harvard professor as saying 'Testing this last hypothesis is especially difficult, but the reader is encoura…