03 September 2015

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

I came across Jordan Ellenberg's HOW NOT TO BE WRONG via a discussion on Twitter, and it sounded fun and intriguing.

I have a pretty complicated relationship with math. When I was in sixth grade, I skipped a year of math, and when I was in seventh grade I skipped another year of math, which meant that I took eleventh-grade math in ninth grade and it was hard and all my classmates were older and treated me weird and I kind of ended up hating math, despite the fact that I was supposed to be "good" at it.

I mean, really, when was I ever going to use math?

So, fast forward to now, when I pick up HOW NOT TO BE WRONG: THE POWER OF MATHEMATICAL THINKING. I don't know what I was expecting, really, other than I expected it to be good, because it came highly recommended.

Here's Ellenberg's thesis: mathematics is really an extension of common sense by other means.

And to prove that, Ellenberg gives example after example showing when, exactly, people are "ever going to use this."

From armoring the weak points on World War II planes, to examining the science of polling, to how a bunch of people gamed the lottery system in Massachusetts, Ellenberg jumps from instance to instance of the real-world applications of math.

I suppose I felt like the examples were still far more specialized than anything I ever do—but it was a compelling argument, nonetheless. And Ellenberg's prose was exceptionally enjoyable. I took note of one particularly funny line:

There are aspects of the natural world-I'm thinking pandas here-that seem more likely to have resulted from grudging bureaucratic compromise than from the mind of an all-knowing deity with total creative control. 

Which was hilarious. And the chapter titles were great, too, like: 

Are you there, God? It's me, Bayesian Inference

Overall, HOW NOT TO BE WRONG was enjoyable and enlightening. It made me feel smarter for having read it.

Did it make me less likely to be wrong? Maybe not. Then again, I am rarely wrong anyway, soooo...