Duelling Idiots and Other Probability Puzzlers

Paul J. Nahin, Author Princeton University Press $37.5 (256p) ISBN 978-0-691-00979-7
""This is a book for people who really like probability problems,"" says Nahin (An Imaginary Tale; Time Travel), a professor of electrical engineering at the University of New Hampshire. If duelists place one bullet in one six-shooter and take turns firing at each other, what's the chance that the guy with the first shot wins? If antiaircraft missiles tell friend from foe with a system that fails 10% of the time (so that 10% of friendly planes get attacked), how much would the friendly fire rate drop if three such systems were used instead? Though probability problems can look, from afar, like extrapolations of common sense, many require mental contortions and counterintuitive realizations that make the right solutions hard to find. Those solutions, in turn, lead readers into neat concepts from higher mathematicsDthe Markov chain (that involves matrices) and the field called geometric probability. Nahin has written neither an academic book, nor one for an audience of novices: he wants recreational-math readers who will enjoy solving these fairly complex problems and who will compare their own achievements to the several-page solutions he gives. The volume thus has three parts of roughly equal length, all packed with graphs and equations. The first gives ""The Problems"" and the second yields ""The Solutions""; the third explains how computers generate random (""more precisely called pseudo-random"") numbers, and concludes with a series of programs that simulate the problems in part one. Nahin's sophisticated puzzles, and their accompanying explanations, have a far better than even chance of fascinating and preoccupying the mathematically literate readership they seek. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
Paperback - 269 pages - 978-0-691-10286-3
Paperback - 269 pages - 978-0-691-15500-5
Open Ebook - 304 pages - 978-1-4008-4304-6
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