The best update of Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics (1954) remains Gary Smith’s Standard Deviations (2014),...

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THE MATH AND MYTH OF COINCIDENCE

A mathematics romp through amazing coincidences that proves, naturally, that they are not amazing at all.

Mazur (Emeritus, Mathematics/Marlboro Coll.; Enlightening Symbols: A Short History of Mathematical Notation and Its Hidden Powers, 2014, etc.) emphasizes two axioms: first, anything that’s possible is guaranteed to happen (a monkey hammering at a keyboard will eventually type a line from Shakespeare); second, math itself explains many amazing coincidences. If 23 people gather, what are the odds that two share the same birth date? The answer: better than 50/50. Mazur begins with 10 categories of coincidences that can be explained mathematically (e.g., a woman who won multimillion-dollar lottery games four times)—or not. Historians dutifully write that Abraham Lincoln dreamed of his own death, but so do we all. Everyone has nightmares. There follows 70 pages on the actual mathematics of these experiences, explained clearly by the author. Science writers traditionally assure readers that no equations will disturb their text, but Mazur does not go along with that approach. While he does not go beyond high school algebra, readers who pay attention will learn the basics of probability, bell curves, standard deviations, hidden variables, and how to calculate the odds of a monkey typing Shakespeare. They are more likely to enjoy discussions of the reality behind his 10 categories and then scratch their heads over absorbing if only distantly relevant chapters that cast a critical eye on DNA evidence (“the general public mistakenly presumes that DNA evidence is the absolute proof of guilt or innocence, at least if it is not compromised by contamination”), extrasensory perception, stock market manipulations, and scientific breakthroughs.

The best update of Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics (1954) remains Gary Smith’s Standard Deviations (2014), but readers willing to work will find that Mazur acquits himself quite well.

Pub Date: March 29, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-465-06095-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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