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.