What are the chances? This is the question we ask ourselves when we encounter the strangest and most seemingly impossible coincidences, like the woman who won the lottery four times or the fact that Lincoln's dreams foreshadowed his own assassination. Read more...
What are the chances? This is the question we ask ourselves when we encounter the strangest and most seemingly impossible coincidences, like the woman who won the lottery four times or the fact that Lincoln's dreams foreshadowed his own assassination. But, when we look at coincidences mathematically, the odds are a lot better than any of us would have thought. In Fluke, mathematician Joseph Mazur takes a second look at the seemingly improbable, sharing with us an entertaining guide to the most surprising moments in our lives. He takes us on a tour of the mathematical concepts of probability, such as the law of large numbers and the birthday paradox, and combines these concepts with lively anecdotes of flukes from around the world. How do you explain finding your college copy of Moby Dick in a used bookstore on the Seine on your first visit to Paris? How can a jury be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that DNA found at the scene of a heinous crime did not get there by some fluke? Should we be surprised if strangers named Maria and Francisco, seeking each other in a hotel lobby, accidentally meet the wrong Francisco and the wrong Maria, another pair of strangers also looking for each other? As Mazur reveals, if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small, it is bound to happen to someone at some time. In Fluke, Mazur offers us proof of the inevitability of the sublime and the unexpected. He has written a book that will appeal to anyone who has ever wondered how all of the tiny decisions that happen in our lives add up to improbable wholes. A must-read for math enthusiasts and storytellers alike, Fluke helps us to understand the true nature of chance.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-02-22
- Reviewer: Staff
Mazur (Euclid in the Rainforest), professor emeritus of mathematics at Marlboro College, succinctly tackles the math behind phenomena of chance and happenstance. He begins with a rundown of generic categories of coincidences—such as lost and found objects, precisely timed encounters, dreams that come true, and gambling luck or misfortune—illustrating each with surprising examples. Over the remainder of the book Mazur analyses the likelihood of these and other moments of chance, including the birthday problem—how many people must be in a room to have a 50% chance that two share a birthday—and the monkey question, which addresses whether a monkey randomly hitting keys would type all of Shakespeare’s works if given enough time. He explains the tools required for such analyses—the theories of large numbers, weak numbers, probability, and frequency distribution—in accessible language, complemented by sophisticated equations and graphics. Mazur also explores larger issues affected by events with small probabilities, among them risk in financial markets and the application of probability theory to DNA evidence. His discussion of DNA evidence is provocative, raising questions about the process. Mazur’s thoughtful tour reveals the explanatory power of probability theory in the larger world. (Apr.)