Skip to main content

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. The authors swoop between engaging philosophical discussions of the nature of probability and the frequentist v Bayesian debate and descriptions of pretty heavy duty mathematical thinking on specific aspects of probability and its applicability.

Some of the 'ten great ideas' are fairly straightforward, whether we're talking the early work from Cardano or Bayes' theorem (though, again, the way it's presented here is really surprisingly impenetrable, when it could be covered for more accessibly). But others really strain the non-mathematician's brain. And these can come quite early. The second chapter opens 'Our second great idea is that judgements can be measured and that coherent judgements are probabilities.' Although I felt I ought to be able grasp what was going on here, I found that the way it was presented went totally over my head. It's just not very well written.

So, unless you know much of this stuff already, the chances are you will find some parts hard going - but I found it well worthwhile using the old university student approach of 'just let it wash over you and you'll get to a bit where it starts to make sense again'. This, for me, was the way to cope and the parts I could get my head around were really interesting. I just wish there had been someone involved in the project who knew how to communicate to ordinary readers.

Hardback:  


Kindle:  

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Sentience - Nicholas Humphrey *****

The first seventy-odd pages of this book are absolutely phenomenal (pun intended, though still true). We start with a near-stream of consciousness prologue - very appropriate for a book on sentience - and then go on to have a description of the early part of Nicholas Humphrey's career in a wonderfully approachable fashion with a writing style somewhere between a deep conversation and a thought process. I particularly loved Humphrey's description of his heading off to Elba to investigate the paranormal claims of the eccentric Hugh Sartorius Whitaker and his experiences with Dian Fossey (not always pleasant) when visiting to study the 'natural psychologist' ability of gorillas. The book then takes a change of tack, signified by the author heading the next chapter 'To work', as he sets out to build for us his theory on the nature of sentience and 'phenomenal consciousness'. This too is very interesting, but lacks the same storytelling verve. It's also a

The Magick of Matter - Felix Flicker ****

This is a book about condensed matter physics, surely a particularly boring-sounding name for one of the most interesting parts of the subject. It's about the physics of things we encounter. When you think about it, it's quite odd that most popular physics books are about things like quantum physics and cosmology and particle physics that don't deal with things we can put our hands on or see. Of course quantum physics impacts lots of everyday objects through electronics etc., but it's still driven by particles we can't see or experience in a normal sense. Felix Flicker introduces us to two key aspects of the physics of tangible stuff - emergence and chaos (though in practice, chaos only gets a passing mention). Because, as he points out, the problem with purely looking at the particle level is that stuff really is the more than the sum of its parts. The chaos and uncertainty part was handled excellently in Tim Palmer's recent The Primacy of Doubt , but this book

How Your Brain Works - Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo ***

As soon as you see the cover of this book, it feels like it's going to be light hearted and super fun (or at least it seems the authors want it to be this). In practice, it's not. It might have big, Joy of Sex style line drawings and an odd shape with cheap feeling paper, but the content is fairly straightforwardly serious.  In the introduction Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo tells us that 'There are many examples of how amateur scientists add to our collective understanding of nature.' This feels a dubious statement at best - it's obviously true historically when professional scientists didn't exist, but these days amateur contributions are distinctly niche. If you think of any of the really big scientific breakthroughs of the last 100 years, there isn't a lot of amateur input. And using this book certainly won't add anything. Once we get into the book proper, it delivers on at least part of the subtitle 'neuroscience experiments for everyone' - the