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Once Upon A Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic of Stories Paperback – 17 Sep 1999


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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New edition edition (17 Sept. 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465051596
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465051595
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.4 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,200,886 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

Mathematician John Allen Paulos bravely bridges the scientific and literary cultures with this amusing, enlightening look at numbers and stories. If you think those two things go together like a "horse and a paperclip," as Allen wryly observes, you only have to look at phenomena like the Bible codes, the stock market's ups and downs, and the Clinton sex scandal to begin to understand the hidden bonds between them. Put simply, mathematics can describe everything that happens, and everything that happens contextualises mathematics. In demonstrating this, Paulos continues the noble numeracy crusade he began with A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and Beyond Numeracy. Perhaps the most compelling thought experiments in the book are those of the statistics of stereotyping and race relations. Paulos shows, mathematically, that minority status makes achieving equality extraordinarily difficult.

If you want to keep hold of your comfortable worldview, don't read Once Upon a Number. But you'll be missing out on an unforgettable reminder of what chance, coincidence and odds really mean, along with several valuable life lessons that may help you understand lost socks, racism and mistaken identity. --Therese Littleton, Amazon.com --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

John Allen Paulos received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin and is professor of mathematics at Temple University. Dr. Paulos has written a number of scholarly papers on mathematical logic, probability, and the philosophy of science. He is also the author "of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man," "Mathematics and Humor," and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper." He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two children.

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 23 Nov. 1998
Format: Hardcover
I saw the Salon review of this and promptly ordered it. A little trepidatious at first, I thought the book might be a rehash of Innumeracy and A Mathematician reads the Newspaper, which I loved. I was wrong. The book has Paulos's wry, witty tone and the many examples and insights are characteristically quirky, but the topic is very different - the similarities and differences between stories and mathematics, between their associated logics and world views, and the different mindsets they bring about. Somehow he relates Murphy's Law, the limited complexity of the human brain, topical news stories, bible codes, race issues, and many other amusing tidbits into a coherent argument about our place in the world. And there isn't an equation in sight.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Some Bloke on 4 Jun. 2012
Format: Hardcover
Some statistical and mathematical application is fascinating, and the book opens with some really interesting angles and examples. I became disappointed as it seemed to run out of ideas, become very academic and in doing so lost my interest.

It seemed to me the main objective had been to demonstrate a high level of knowledge and some good reading, which was acheived, but this just lost me. I am a bit of a geek, I work with numbers and love spreadsheets. I've got two degrees in mathematical subjects, but couldn't get stimulated by this. Judging by other reviews this is not the prevailing view, but certainly my experience.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Nick Franchini on 25 Sept. 2002
Format: Paperback
This book presents in a delightfully entertaining way the missed opportunities that result in the separation of quantitative and qualitative worlds. It uses a series of anecdotes and stories to show that keeping these two worlds apart makes it all too easy to lie with statistics and influence with idle speculation about coincidence and chance. The author suggests there are exciting new vistas to explore once we accept there is an intriguing 'third way' that straddles this great divide between quant. and qual. Opportunities emerge for everyone from the consumer, to the mathematician and the philosopher.
Reading this books one begins to understand a little more why questionnaires are becoming increasingly unwelcome and why trust in expert evidence is dwindling.
The author pricks the ego of many entrenched interests but never with malice and always with a wry smile.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful By William S. Dockens III on 23 Aug. 2005
Format: Hardcover
I am a mathematical psychologist, a term viewed by some as a contradiction in terms. It is not certain that John Allen Paulo's book Once Upon A Number could have spared me some of the most embarrassing moments of my life but it sure would have helped.
Being acutely aware of the irrational but real boundaries between people who think in terms of formula and numbers and those who think with metaphors and analogies might have prevented some rejected papers, confused audiences and irrational abstracts. I am not sure about how well I have learned the lesson, but at least I have been properly warned. Valuable book!
William S. Dockens III PhD.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 21 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Paulos continues with his amazing mathematical insights 23 Nov. 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I saw the Salon review of this and promptly ordered it. A little trepidatious at first, I thought the book might be a rehash of Innumeracy and A Mathematician reads the Newspaper, which I loved. I was wrong. The book has Paulos's wry, witty tone and the many examples and insights are characteristically quirky, but the topic is very different - the similarities and differences between stories and mathematics, between their associated logics and world views, and the different mindsets they bring about. Somehow he relates Murphy's Law, the limited complexity of the human brain, topical news stories, bible codes, race issues, and many other amusing tidbits into a coherent argument about our place in the world. And there isn't an equation in sight.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Fast-paced, insightful and totally unique 18 Feb. 2001
By Matthew Wells - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Of all the science books that I have read, there are only a few that I would classify as a must-read. I definitely put this book in that category. I have never read a Paulos before, and was amazed at how facinating the world of probability and statistics is when it is described this well! Authors of books about the wonders of the universe would be lucky if they could make their subjects as interesting as Paulos makes his.
There are four major concepts described in this book: the origins of probability and statistics (in particular how these subjects grew out of our natural observations of the world), the effect of subjective perspectives on our interpretation of both story and statistics, intensional logic (the still little-understood logical structure of this subjective interpretation), and information theory. The book takes a fast-paced, entertaining tour through these topics, and Paulos adds interesting personal anecdotes and bad (intentioanlly) jokes. The book concludes with a discussion of the chasm between the arts and sciences (and those who like to keep it that way).
If your looking for a detailed study of any of these topics, however, then this book may not be for you. But this is a good introduction to subjects you may no little about, but will most likely by facinated by when you finish reading.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Insightful and brave 6 Aug. 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I read Innumeracy many years ago and have been reading Paulos' recent monthly column on abcnews.com and so I bought a copy of Once Upon a Number. I was very surprised at it. It seems to me to be a departure, a brave mathematical foray into the realms of literature and everyday life. The many insights in it are arresting not so much for their mathematical content (although I did minor in math in college) but for the strange new perspectives they provide that are "obvious" only after they've been made. Very intriguing stuff!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A strange and captivating mix of literature and math 2 Dec. 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I've never read a book on mathematics or science with as much voice and attitude as this one. The similarities between narrative and mathematical thinking (and their differences) are startling and sometimes subtle. What keeps you going are the unusual insights, the witty and funny turns of phrase, and that voice and intelligence which seem to rise from the page. An English major and self-styled math phobe, I learned more about story-telling from this book than from some of my lit courses.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Neither as interesting or informative as his other books 2 May 1999
By R. Richard Livorine - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I have read all of his books; this, unfortunately,is the worst. After finishing it, I knew nothing more, nor had anything more to think about. His other books, on the other hand, were always edifying and inspiring. His core theme is not very interesting or persuasively advanced. Of course there is a relationship between mathematical concepts and verbal expression. Mathematics inheres in the very fact of rational verbal expression. Without it, there could be no rational expression. His discussion of a more "scientific" theory of literature, is long-winded and unconvincing.The book is most interesting when he identifies and explains common errors in judgment manifest in common stories. But even here, he mostly belabors the obvious.
My final sense was that this book, unlike his previous efforts, was written primarily to make money. The intellectual love which shimmers in his other work, is completely missing.
RRL
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