Reading List: The Improbability Principle

The chance of randomly finding a four-leaf clover is about one in 10,000. But it happens. The probability of getting 26 black numbers in a row in roulette is about one in 137 million. But it happened in 1913 in Monte Carlo. A lucky New Jersey woman won the lottery twice in five months; an unlucky Virginia park ranger was struck by lightning seven times. A Colorado woman browsing in a Paris bookstore found a copy of a favorite childhood book, opened it and discovered her name on the flyleaf. These coincidences—improbable or seemingly impossible events—aren’t all that rare, says statistician David Hand, emeritus professor of mathematics at Imperial College in London.

In The Improbability Principle, Hand explains that these events fall under the “law of truly large numbers,” which states that given a large enough number of opportunities, any outrageous thing is likely to happen. He leads readers through this unfamiliar land of probability and statistics with wit and charm, all the while explaining in layman’s terms the laws that govern it. There’s the “law of inevitability,” which states that something must happen, and the “law of selection,” a mathematical version of Monday morning quarterbacking.

Hand breaks up the statistics and math with anecdotes and humor. We predict there’s a very good chance you’ll enjoy this book.

by David Hand

February
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $27

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