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

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…