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How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking Hardcover – May 29, 2014


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; F First Edition edition (May 29, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594205221
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594205224
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (120 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* How many home runs can fans expect a league leader to hit after the All Star break? Why is the most handsome man around often the rudest? By exploring questions such as these, Ellenberg breaks through the widespread perception of mathematics as a narrowly academic pursuit, hopelessly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people. Readers will indeed marvel at how often mathematics sheds unexpected light on economics (assessing the performance of investment advisors), public health (predicting the likely prevalence of obesity in 30 years), and politics (explaining why wealthy individuals vote Republican but affluent states go for Democrats). Relying on remarkably few technical formulas, Ellenberg writes with humor and verve as he repeatedly demonstrates that mathematics simply extends common sense. He manages to translate even the work of theoretical pioneers such as Cantor and Gödel into the language of intelligent amateurs. The surprises that await readers include not only a discovery of the astonishing versatility of mathematical thinking but also a realization of its very real limits. Mathematics, as it turns out, simply cannot resolve the real-world ambiguities surrounding the Bush-Gore cliff-hanger of 2000, nor can it resolve the much larger question of God’s existence. A bracing encounter with mathematics that matters. --Bryce Christensen

Review

The New York Times:
“Lively prose….Refreshingly lucid while still remaining conceptually rigorous, this book lends insight into how mathematicians think — and shows us how we can start to think like mathematicians as well.”

Manil Suri, The Washington Post:
“Brilliantly engaging.... Ellenberg’s talent for finding real-life situations that enshrine mathematical principles would be the envy of any math teacher. He presents these in fluid succession, like courses in a fine restaurant, taking care to make each insight shine through, unencumbered by jargon or notation. Part of the sheer intellectual joy of the book is watching the author leap nimbly from topic to topic, comparing slime molds to the Bush-Gore Florida vote, criminology to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The final effect is of one enormous mosaic unified by mathematics.”

Mario Livio, The Wall Street Journal:
“Easy-to-follow, humorously presented.... This book will help you to avoid the pitfalls that result from not having the right tools. It will help you realize that mathematical reasoning permeates our lives—that it can be, as Mr. Ellenberg writes, a kind of 'X-ray specs that reveal hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of the world.'”

Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American:
“Witty, compelling, and just plain fun to read.... How Not to Be Wrong can help you explore your mathematical superpowers.”

Laura Miller, Salon:
“A poet-mathematician offers an empowering and entertaining primer for the age of Big Data.... A rewarding popular math book for just about anyone.”

Nature:
“Mathematicians from Charles Lutwidge Dodgson to Steven Strogatz have celebrated the power of mathematics in life and the imagination. In this hugely enjoyable exploration of everyday maths as 'an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense', Jordan Ellenberg joins their ranks. Ellenberg, an academic and Slate’s ‘Do the Math’ columnist, explains key principles with erudite gusto—whether poking holes in predictions of a US 'obesity apocalypse', or unpicking an attempt by psychologist B. F. Skinner to prove statistically that Shakespeare was a dud at alliteration.”

Bloomberg View:
“If you have a vacation coming up in August and you’re looking for a fun book to read that will also enlighten you, it would be hard to beat Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.”

Times Higher Education:
“A fresh application of complex mathematical thinking to commonplace events.... How Not to Be Wrong is beautifully written, holding the reader’s attention throughout with well-chosen material, illuminating exposition, wit and helpful examples. I am reminded of the great writer of recreational mathematics, Martin Gardner: Ellenberg shares Gardner’s remarkable ability to write clearly and entertainingly, bringing in deep mathematical ideas without the reader registering their difficulty.”

Kirkus Reviews:
“The author avoids heavy jargon and relies on real-world anecdotes and basic equations and illustrations to communicate how even simple math is a powerful tool….[Ellenberg]writes that, at its core, math is a special thing and produces a feeling of understanding unattainable elsewhere: ‘You feel you’ve reached into the universe’s guts and put your hand on the wire.’ Math is profound, and profoundly awesome, so we should use it well—or risk being wrong….Witty and expansive, Ellenberg’s math will leave readers informed, intrigued and armed with plenty of impressive conversation starters.”

Booklist:
“Readers will indeed marvel at how often mathematics sheds unexpected light on economics (assessing the performance of investment advisors), public health (predicting the likely prevalence of obesity in 30 years), and politics (explaining why wealthy individuals vote Republican but affluent states go for Democrats). Relying on remarkably few technical formulas, Ellenberg writes with humor and verve as he repeatedly demonstrates that mathematics simply extends common sense. He manages to translate even the work of theoretical pioneers such as Cantor and Gödel into the language of intelligent amateurs. The surprises that await readers include not only a discovery of the astonishing versatility of mathematical thinking but also a realization of its very real limits. Mathematics, as it turns out, simply cannot resolve the real-world ambiguities surrounding the Bush-Gore cliff-hanger of 2000, nor can it resolve the much larger question of God’s existence. A bracing encounter with mathematics that matters.”

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; author of How the Mind Works:
“The title of this wonderful book explains what it adds to the honorable genre of popular writing on mathematics. Like Lewis Carroll, George Gamow, and Martin Gardner before him, Jordan Ellenberg shows how mathematics can delight and stimulate the mind. But he also shows that mathematical thinking should be in the toolkit of every thoughtful person—of everyone who wants to avoid fallacies, superstitions, and other ways of being wrong.”

Steven Strogatz, Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics, Cornell University, and author, The Joy of x:
“With math as with anything else, there’s smart, and then there’s street smart. This book will help you be both. Fans of Freakonomics and The Signal and the Noise will love Ellenberg’s surprising stories, snappy writing, and brilliant lessons in numerical savvy. How Not to Be Wrong is sharp, funny, and right.”

John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper:
“Through a powerful mathematical lens Jordan Ellenberg engagingly examines real-world issues ranging from the fetishizing of straight lines in the reporting of obesity to the game theory of missing flights, from the relevance to digestion of regression to the mean to the counter-intuitive Berkson’s paradox, which may explain why handsome men don’t seem to be as nice as not so handsome ones. The coverage is broad, but not shallow and the exposition is non-technical and sprightly.”

Timothy Gowers:
“Jordan Ellenberg is a top mathematician and a wonderful expositor, and the theme of his book is important and timely. How Not to Be Wrong is destined to be a classic.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex:
“Jordan Ellenberg promises to share ways of thinking that are both simple to grasp and profound in their implications, and he delivers in spades. These beautifully readable pages delight and enlighten in equal parts. Those who already love math will eat it up, and those who don’t yet know how lovable math is are in for a most pleasurable surprise."

Danica McKellar, actress and bestselling author of Math Doesn’t Suck and Kiss My Math:
"Brilliant and fascinating! Ellenberg shows his readers how to magnify common sense using the tools usually only accessible to those who have studied higher mathematics. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their worldly savviness—and math IQ!"

More About the Author

Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard and an MFA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins. His areas of research specialization are number theory and algebraic geometry. He has written articles on mathematical topics in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wired, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and the Believer, and is a regular columnist for Slate.

Customer Reviews

Very well written book.
Valerie P Herwig
This is a great book for people who are interested in math, and is essential for math teachers.
L. Bloch
I enjoy sitting and reading it for fun!
William R. Langman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

152 of 161 people found the following review helpful By BHB on May 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I run across a lot of books that I add to my to-be-read list and then forget about until after their publication dates or I stumble upon the book in the library or bookstore. How Not to Be Wrong was initially one of those books, but it sounded so good that I found myself obsessively thinking about it and started a search for a pre-publication copy. Since I'm not a librarian, didn't win a copy via First Reads, and don't have friends at Penguin Press, it took some time and effort, but having procured a copy and read it, I can say that it was well worth my time and $6.00. How Not to Be Wrong is a catchy title, but for me, this book is really about the subtitle, The Power of Mathematical Thinking.

Ellenberg deftly explains why mathematics is important, gives the reader myriad examples applicable to our own lives, and also tells us what math can't do. He writes, “Mathematics is the extension of common sense by other means”, and proceeds to expound upon an incredible number of interesting subjects and how mathematics can help us better understand these topics, such as obesity, economics, reproducibility, the lottery, error-correcting codes, and the existence (or not) of God. He writes in a compelling, explanatory way that I think anyone with an interest in mathematics and/or simply understanding things more completely will be able to grasp. Ellenberg writes “Do the Math” for Slate, and it's evident in his column and this book that he knows how to explain mathematical ideas to non-mathematicians, and even more so, seems to enjoy doing so with great enthusiasm. I won't pretend that I understood everything discussed in this book, but it's such an excellent book that I also bought the hardcover (so I have an index which my pre-pub copy does not), and reread the book so I do have a much more thorough understanding. I've wished for a book like this for a long time, and I'd like to thank Jordan Ellenberg for writing it for me!
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87 of 100 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey W Hatley on June 9, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've already been recommending this book to family and friends, so I thought I'd take a few moments to recommend it to strangers on the internet, too.

This book, as anyone who is familiar with Jordan Ellenberg's writing (or speaking!) would expect, is written in an entertaining, witty, and engaging style. Each chapter of the book is framed by one or two major, motivating questions, such as:

- What parts of military aircraft should get the most armor?
- Is it ever a good idea to play the lottery?
- How should votes be counted in a democracy?

The answers that mathematical thinking asks you to accept are often surprising and unintuitive, but Jordan guides the reader through the fog of potentially-complicated arguments with a conversational style rife with clear, succinct examples and amusing historical anecdotes. In the hands of other writers, the mathematics in this book may be dull, or technical and complicated, or all of these things; but with How Not To Be Wrong, Jordan has instead created a book that you will eagerly and (mostly) effortlessly consume.

To put it another way: Steven Pinker said that "assumption of equality between writer and reader makes the reader feel like a genius, [while] bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce." Jordan Ellenberg makes the reader feel like a genius.

Finally, regarding another reviewer's comments about the author's "liberal bias", I'd like to point out that I had the exact opposite impression while reading this book. Whenever politics were considered, I thought Jordan was even-handed and stuck to the mathematics at hand without wading into any political commentary.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Let's Compare Options Preptorial TOP 500 REVIEWER on June 27, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You'll start reading this book thinking there will be a lot of juicy math on odds vs. utility functions in decision theory, then toss it out in disgust when you find you're reading a snail-paced "lives of the Saints in Probability..."

BUT IF you toss it, you'd be WRONG just like the book's title! Ok, I'm with George Box that all models are wrong but some are useful, so in all humility, even if our thinking is n-dimensional and nonlinear, our headlights still don't go out centuries, and the law of unintended consequences will inevitably rear it's fearsome head. So yes, I know I'm gunna be wrong more than right even reading this gem of a book.

It gets FUN! As you read on, Jord gets into deeper and deeper math, and most significantly, starts to COMBINE stats, geometry, differential equations, etc. in eclectic, multi-disciplinary fields, which are much more like real life than academic exercises. It is not only math that has a new twist every hour these days, it is the combinations of fields (as in vocations and disciplines, not quantum fields) that is making math more and more relevant.

I'm not one to discount the gut, heart, tradition or even intuition, but it really is enlightening to take a little more quant view at our normal evaluations of everyday spin. Yes, the author does have a bit of a left bent, but heck, those are just examples, and you'd have to be pretty emotion driven not to see how easily his logic applies to ANY "position." I see a LOT of tongue in cheek in this book and a LOT of both wonder and just plain great story telling-- please don't pass on this book if you're bright but not necessarily a policy wonk!
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