cover image Once Upon a Number: A Mathematician Bridges Stories and Statistics

Once Upon a Number: A Mathematician Bridges Stories and Statistics

John Allen Paulos. Basic Books, $23 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-465-05158-8

""This book is not concerned with the history of great theorems, but with bridging, or at least clarifying, some of the gaps between formal mathematics and its applications."" This statement of purpose, more clearly than the book's title, best sums up Paulos's goals in his latest work. Paulos (Innumeracy) insists that statistics cannot be disconnected from the stories--or narrative contexts--that attach them to the complexities of the world. He demonstrates this idea through examples including recent controversies over birth order and the so-called Bible codes. Before we can agree on the meaning of statistics about birth order, he contends, we must agree on what the terms involved mean. Is an only child the same as a first-born? What about a baby born to a large family but then adopted by a childless couple? Paulos turns to the Bible codes to demonstrate that it is the stories we tell about seemingly improbable coincidences, rather than the mathematics involved, that make them compelling. Not only are most seeming coincidences of ""stunning insignificance,"" he explains, but in the case of textual analysis, they are easy to generate. Paulos shows this by easily locating the names ""Bill"" and ""Monica"" in the U.S. Constitution. The author may occasionally frustrate readers with an indirect approach, and some sections read more like trenchant observations than argument, but his sense of humor is always quite winning. Paulos's insightful and amusing observations on how the truths discovered through mathematics should be applied to our everyday lives will appeal to an audience beyond math and science enthusiasts. Author tour. (Nov.)