Dice World: Science and Life in a Random Universe Paperback – 6 Feb 2014
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'Methodical, clear, entertaining and just a bit mind-boggling.' * Irish Times * 'Clegg's writing style is highly readable, and the contemporary cultural references impressed upon me ... how accessible [Dice World] is.' * Chemistry World *
About the Author
Brian Clegg is a science journalist and author whose numerous books include Inflight Science and The Universe Inside You, both published by Icon. He also runs popularscience.co.uk
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Other reviewers have remarked that the examples included have been documented elsewhere but this book does draw them together into a collection.
Would I recommend the book? Yes. Will I read it again? Probably not, at least not for some time.
Clegg begins the book by stressing that humans are essentially pattern seekers; a skill which has served our species well in most instances. However, the skill can also let us down claims Clegg, especially in our capacity to weigh up risk and to understand (perhaps ‘trust’ would be a better word) randomness. In particular, Clegg distinguishes what he calls ‘classical’ from ‘chaotic’ randomness and emphasises that whilst both types can catch us out, our worst mistakes tend to occur when we try to apply the rules of one to the other. There then follows various examples to make the point, some of which are highly illuminating and help one to appreciate that humans are vulnerable to the mistake of assuming patterns, such as how to identify the next block buster author, when really such markers do not exist.
In chapter 4, Clegg provides a quick overview of the historical development of statistics and provides some illustrations of how expected value is not an effective guide to a person’s decision making process, when losing such a wager would be catastrophic. Chaotic randomness is shown to be central to why bad decisions are constantly being made in such places as the stock market.
From chapter 5, Brian Clegg’s background in experimental physics and operations research is evident, since he introduces how Newton’s clockwork universe has given way to a probabilistic based interpretation of our underlying reality. Such developments clearly hold significant implications for our views on a deterministic universe, versus one where freewill can operate. This is a topic Clegg returns to in his concluding chapter.
Newton’s clockwork model of the motion of the planets created a platform for further scientific enquiry, but it left a void on the question of how the mass of objects exert gravitational attraction upon one another. This was a problem that Newton himself acknowledged and for which he drew criticism at the time. In particular, as anyone familiar or remembering their school physics lessons can recall, the calculus developed by Newton (also independently by Leibniz) was not able to perform the task of solving the ‘Three Body Problem.’ Even today, although we can generate pretty good approximations, we cannot obtain precise measurements. Clegg’s knowledge helps steer the reader through a comfortable description of the important issues surrounding the problem and sets the stage for his overview of randomness under conditions of chaos. The bare essentials of the concept are explained and life and meaning is given to their relevance by Clegg’s illustrations which bring us back to see how chaotic randomness is so frequently misunderstood by the general public. Examples include the limitations of long term weather forecasts (above 5 days) and trying to predict winners in circumstances where such an exercise is futile.
Clegg now switches gears to provide a somewhat longer chapter which explains some of the principles of statistical analysis and their pitfalls and associated misconceptions. This is an interesting chapter, not so much because of its rehash of standard statistical methodology such as sample selection or questionnaire design, but because Clegg provides some valid examples of how easily people can be misled by statistical reports, which hide (unintentionally or otherwise) key background information which provides critical context to the findings. Anyone familiar with statistical analysis is not going to find anything new here, but the reader seeking to better understand the topic of how we address the nature of uncertainty in both the natural and social sciences will find some useful stories.
In chapter 9 the book turns to consider the question of ‘what does random mean?’ Here the stories highlight the way in which many people are confused by their understanding of randomness and their expectations of patterns lead them to false conclusions. For example, Clegg uses illustrations from the lottery, sports scores and various other number sequences to highlight how people can be fooled into believing that certain patterns are more likely than others; when actually they are not. He also illustrates how in the law, statistics have been abused by wrongful interpretation and dubious allocation of probabilities to events; sometimes with catastrophic and unjust outcomes for the people on trial.
Armed with this knowledge, Clegg returns the reader to the world of physics; in particular, quantum physics. Over the next few chapters, Clegg reviews the nature of randomness as it pertains to subatomic particles at the atomic level and revisits the highlights of historical developments in the early part of the 20th century concerning efforts to explain the behaviour of atoms. Anyone familiar with this material is unlikely to discover new ideas; however, within the context of the book, it provides the reader with a valid overview of how uncertainty and randomness play out in this quantum world. This includes more recent ideas and their ongoing evolution such as quantum entanglement and the prospects of quantum computers, with consideration of how such machines might impact the currently relatively secure encryption systems of the financial world.
At this stage of the book, Clegg takes what felt like a bit of a backwards leap in terms of the historical timeline, by returning to the challenges facing physicists towards the end of the 19th century focusing upon the problem of the ‘ultraviolet catastrophe.’ Now Clegg runs over the ‘laws of thermodynamics’ before focusing upon the second law. Here the reader is introduced to randomness in the context of the degree of disorder in a closed system, namely entropy. But Clegg leads the discussion beyond the classical qualitative description of entropy to appreciate its quantitative nature, without getting too involved in the maths. As is usual in treatment of this topic, the story naturally leads into the paradox of ‘Maxwell’s Demon’ and the question of whether time’s arrow can only run into the future and whether the universe’s fate is to slowly decay over time into a state of increasing entropy.
Clegg uses this forward looking framework to switch the discussion into consideration of how we approach the future in terms of forecasts. It is at this stage that the book tends to lose direction and unravel. Although an interesting enough read, the chapter really highlights how human expectation of probabilities about some future event can sometimes be misguided; Clegg retells the famous illustration of the ‘Monty Hall game’ and the ‘Born on a Tuesday’ question. Both are interesting if one has not come across them before, but their treatment and positioning in the book lacked a certain conviction. They sit fine in a book of puzzles on maths and probability, but Clegg’s chapter lacked any further substantial exploration of the topic of how we as humans can be misguided in our confidence the outcome of future events.
Indeed, the penultimate chapter which follows provides an almost ‘throw-away’ overview of Bayesian probability which did not really seem to ‘fit.’ To conclude the book, Clegg returns to consider the implications of statistics and a deterministic view of the world when facing the question of ‘freewill.’ As such, although Clegg makes some valid observations on the topic, the chapter fails to effectively draw together some of its earlier material in order to investigate the question. In this respect, I tend to agree with one of the other comments made by Reptilian, who indicated that the book tended to lose its way. For me, this was most apparent in the latter part of the book.
Overall, I should recommend this book as a general read for the kind of audience highlighted at the beginning of this review. Clegg’s writing style is easy going and not particularly demanding and most of explanations are pretty clear. However, my criticism of the book lies in the way in which it seems to lack a consistent backbone. It is as if the book’s various chapters had been written independently in places, without sufficient regard to the overall theme; as a result in places, particularly towards the end, it lost its sense of purpose and momentum. It could have done with much tighter editing, particularly towards the end. Having said that, I think it is still an enjoyable and informative read.
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