Reviews

Sober night with a drunkard

During my visit in Boston I came across an amazing second-hand bookstore. Commonwealth Books provide their patrons with the opportunity to browse books in the fresh air – as fresh as it can be in the middle of a city. Lured by cheap books and some shadow (it was over 35 degrees), I spent a delightful hour leafing through numerous volumes. Obviously I didn’t leave with empty hands: which mathematician would resist the temptation to buy Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk” for five dollars? Well, I didn’t.

Probably I don’t work hard enough on my research, because I still have energy to devour popular science books in my free time. Whenever I read them, I try to forget all my mathematical knowledge and appreciate that the book might be interesting for laypeople. Since Bayesian statistics or random processes are my bread and butter, there’s no way that an elementary description of them will keep my full attention. I believed it until today.

“The Drunkard’s Walk. How Randomness Rules Our Lives” is truly the best popular book about probability and statistics I’ve ever read. Mlodinow doesn’t describe any rocket science, he just explains basics of random processes. I’m impressed by the research he must have done to write this book. The bibliography covers sixteen pages in fine print and the sources vary from mathematical textbooks, through historical articles to TV shows. This diversity is reflected also in the examples he uses. I was surprised to read about people’s inability to deal with random processes. A couple of times Mlodinow caught me on completely wrong thinking – how could I, a proud statistician, get tricked into believing that the sentence “Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement” is more probable than “Linda is a bank teller”?! Apparently in many situations our brains just refuse to be reasonable.

Thanks to numerous examples from psychology, law, medicine, physics and even show business, we can see that probability and statistics can be applied literally everywhere. Each theoretical point is illustrated by a few different examples, probably because the author is aware that not each of them will appeal to everybody. Moreover, Mlodinow managed to explain basics of probability and statistics without using a single mathematical formula. This is actually quite impressive! Instead we have a lot of descriptions, plots or tables.

When it comes to popular science books, I’m quite picky. They tend to be either too complicated for their target audience or way too boring for scientists. It’s really hard to find the balance between including too much and too little detail. Mlodinow mastered this subtle skill. Finding “The Drunkard’s Walk” was just a random event in my life but it filled me with ideas how to communicate my research more effectively. A fiver well spent!

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