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The math we learn in school can seem like a dull set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In How Not to Be Wrong, Jordan Ellenberg shows us how terribly limiting this view is: Math isn’t confined to abstract incidents that never occur in real life, but rather touches everything we do—the whole world is shot through with it.
Math allows us to see the hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of our world. It’s a science of not being wrong, hammered out by centuries of hard work and argument. Armed with the tools of mathematics, we can see through to the true meaning of information we take for granted: How early should you get to the airport? What does “public opinion” really represent? Why do tall parents have shorter children? Who really won Florida in 2000? And how likely are you, really, to develop cancer?
How Not to Be Wrong presents the surprising revelations behind all of these questions and many more, using the mathematician’s method of analyzing life and exposing the hard-won insights of the academic community to the layman—minus the jargon. Ellenberg chases mathematical threads through a vast range of time and space, from the everyday to the cosmic, encountering, among other things, baseball, Reaganomics, daring lottery schemes, Voltaire, the replicability crisis in psychology, Italian Renaissance painting, artificial languages, the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the coming obesity apocalypse, Antonin Scalia’s views on crime and punishment, the psychology of slime molds, what Facebook can and can’t figure out about you, and the existence of God.
Ellenberg pulls from history as well as from the latest theoretical developments to provide those not trained in math with the knowledge they need. Math, as Ellenberg says, is “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, more meaningful way. How Not to Be Wrong will show you how.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Michael on 07-02-14
Great book but better in writing
The title of this book is somewhat misleading (which the author admits). Instead it should have been "how to use math to not feel stupid when you are wrong". The author freely admits the dark truth, most people are not going to use the math they learn. Amazingly this is true even of scientists. Most of the math stuff I learned I don't need, as now I use Excel and Mathematica. Yet this book explains the part of math I do use, and many people don't realize is the important part of math, that is, to extend common sense by other means. This book includes primers of the very basics of calculus and statistics that everyone should know. The stories are humorous, interesting, and make the point that a little math can really help make good decisions.
Unfortunately, there are some parts of this book that don't translate well to audio. A table of numbers can be compared at a glance, but a bunch of spoken numbers are not easy to compare. If you wonder what good is learning math, this is a great book, but I would recommend the written version. The author's narration is quite good, with a very positive attitude that comes through.
35 of 36 people found this review helpful
By Bonny on 06-03-14
Mathematics is the extension of common sense...
I run across a lot of books that I add to my to-be-read list and then forget about until after their publication dates or I stumble upon the book in the library or bookstore. How Not to Be Wrong was initially one of those books, but it sounded so good that I found myself obsessively thinking about it and started a search for a pre-publication copy. Since I'm not a librarian, didn't win a copy via First Reads, and don't have friends at Penguin Press, it took some time and effort, but having procured a copy and read it, I can say that it was well worth my time and $6.00. How Not to Be Wrong is a catchy title, but for me, this book is really about the subtitle, The Power of Mathematical Thinking.
Ellenberg deftly explains why mathematics is important, gives the reader myriad examples applicable to our own lives, and also tells us what math can't do. He writes, “Mathematics is the extension of common sense by other means”, and proceeds to expound upon an incredible number of interesting subjects and how mathematics can help us better understand these topics, such as obesity, economics, reproducibility, the lottery, error-correcting codes, and the existence (or not) of God. He writes in a compelling, explanatory way that I think anyone with an interest in mathematics and/or simply understanding things more completely will be able to grasp. Ellenberg writes “Do the Math” for Slate, and it's evident in his column and this book that he knows how to explain mathematical ideas to non-mathematicians, and even more so, seems to enjoy doing so with great enthusiasm. I won't pretend that I understood everything discussed in this book, but it's such an excellent book that I also bought the audio version and am listening to it (read by the author himself!) so I have a much more thorough understanding. I've wished for a book like this for a long time, and I'd like to thank Jordan Ellenberg for writing it for me!
15 of 15 people found this review helpful