'Delightful ... Our lives may be shaped by chance, but they are enriched by awareness - just the sort of awareness that this fascinating book will give you' -- Guardian
'Mlodinow writes in a breezy style, interspersing probabilistic mind-benders with portraits of theorists ... The result is a readable crash course in randomness' -- The New York Times
'Please read The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, a history, explanation, and exaltation of probability theory ... The results are mind-bending'
I do feel a little sheepish recommending two science books in a row - not to mention surprised at myself, for last week's recommendation, Quantum, contains passages of rather hard science, and I thought that I could do with a break as much as you.
But this book is different. It is in the nature of science books to contain science, and this is no exception; but it is unusual for them to contain humour and highly readable prose - not to mention very useful and practical insights which will help you live your life with a greater understanding of the world about you.
People, as Leonard Mlodinow reminds us, are not always that smart, and in fact our mental processes can lead us to the wrong conclusions. Try this one yourself: ask someone if there are more six-letter words in the English language whose fifth letter is N, or more six-letter words ending in "-ing"? You will discover that most people say there are more words ending in "ing" but just think about it for a bit.
That might not sound like a problem in probability, but it is related to it. And the reach of this book is extraordinary. Read it carefully and you may discover how to start a winning lottery syndicate (you need a mathematically ignorant lottery provider, like the Virginia State lottery in 1992), win with profitable consistency at roulette (and, if you're a casino owner, how to stop someone winning with profitable consistency), evaluate evidence in a criminal trial correctly, detect frauds and bullshitters, not give up when your manuscript has been rejected by 27 publishers, and assess the veracity of Bill Clinton's tax returns for the past 13 years. (I'll spare you the bother of that one: thanks to the careful application of Benford's Law, he's probably honest.) As Mlodinow quotes a Harvard professor: "Our brains are just not wired to do probability problems very well," but this is just the book to help us to do them better.
The charm of the book also resides in the quality of the writing. It is a good idea to use humour to help the mathematical medicine slip down, and Mlodinow does it as well as I've ever seen it done. There are bits that make you laugh out loud, but they never obscure the facts he is trying to convey. "If psychics really existed, you'd see them in places like [Monte Carlo], hooting and dancing and pushing wheelbarrows of cash down the street, and not on websites calling themselves 'Zelda Who Knows All and Sees All' and offering 24-hour free online love advice along with about 1.2 million other web psychics (according to Google)." He has, according to the inside cover of the book, written for MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation, which may have something to do with this.
Another remarkable thing about the book, which may also have something to do with his extra-scientific writing experience, is that he is not simply content to leave it at the maths, and scoff at the scientifically illiterate. He goes on to explain why it is that we often get things wrong - and why it may be advantageous for us to do so. One experiment seemed to prove that if you think you're in control of your environment, you'll live longer - even if you have, in reality, no such control. And this is what gambling is all about: our belief that we can see patterns in chaos. (Actually, the question whether there is in fact such a thing as chaos or true randomness is one tackled by Mlodinow.)
Even given this, the book still manages to surprise and delight until the very end. It is also - and this is something you really don't get in other science books, particularly the mathematically inclined - moving. Bracketed by stories about his parents' survival of the Holocaust, this is a work which goes beyond its brief to tell us how to live our lives in hope and knowledge. I do not exaggerate. When Beckett said that all he could hope to do was "fail better", he was more right than he knew. "Even a coin weighted toward failure will sometimes land on success," says Mlodinow. So don't give up.
-- Nicholas Lezard, Guardian