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Comment: Basic Books, TPB, 1998, 1st PB printing. Appears never read, clean, tight binding, no markings or highlighting, minimal shelf wear
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Once Upon A Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic Of Stories Paperback – October 8, 1999


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New edition edition (October 8, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465051596
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465051595
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #729,890 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Mathematician John Allen Paulos bravely bridges the scientific and literary cultures with this amusing, enlightening look at numbers and stories. If you think those two things go together like a "horse and a paperclip," as Allen wryly observes, you only have to look at phenomena like the Bible codes, the stock market's ups and downs, and the Clinton sex scandal to begin to understand the hidden bonds between them. Put simply, mathematics can describe everything that happens, and everything that happens contextualizes mathematics. In demonstrating this, Paulos continues the noble numeracy crusade he began with A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and Innumeracy. Perhaps the most compelling thought experiments in the book are those of the statistics of stereotyping and race relations. Paulos shows, mathematically, that minority status makes achieving equality extraordinarily difficult.

If you want to keep hold of your comfortable worldview, don't read Once Upon a Number. But you'll be missing out on an unforgettable reminder of what chance, coincidence, and odds really mean, along with several valuable life lessons that may help you understand lost socks, racism, and mistaken identity. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"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.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 23, 1998
Format: Hardcover
I saw the Salon review of this and promptly ordered it. A little trepidatious at first, I thought the book might be a rehash of Innumeracy and A Mathematician reads the Newspaper, which I loved. I was wrong. The book has Paulos's wry, witty tone and the many examples and insights are characteristically quirky, but the topic is very different - the similarities and differences between stories and mathematics, between their associated logics and world views, and the different mindsets they bring about. Somehow he relates Murphy's Law, the limited complexity of the human brain, topical news stories, bible codes, race issues, and many other amusing tidbits into a coherent argument about our place in the world. And there isn't an equation in sight.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Wells on February 17, 2001
Format: Paperback
Of all the science books that I have read, there are only a few that I would classify as a must-read. I definitely put this book in that category. I have never read a Paulos before, and was amazed at how facinating the world of probability and statistics is when it is described this well! Authors of books about the wonders of the universe would be lucky if they could make their subjects as interesting as Paulos makes his.
There are four major concepts described in this book: the origins of probability and statistics (in particular how these subjects grew out of our natural observations of the world), the effect of subjective perspectives on our interpretation of both story and statistics, intensional logic (the still little-understood logical structure of this subjective interpretation), and information theory. The book takes a fast-paced, entertaining tour through these topics, and Paulos adds interesting personal anecdotes and bad (intentioanlly) jokes. The book concludes with a discussion of the chasm between the arts and sciences (and those who like to keep it that way).
If your looking for a detailed study of any of these topics, however, then this book may not be for you. But this is a good introduction to subjects you may no little about, but will most likely by facinated by when you finish reading.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I read Innumeracy many years ago and have been reading Paulos' recent monthly column on abcnews.com and so I bought a copy of Once Upon a Number. I was very surprised at it. It seems to me to be a departure, a brave mathematical foray into the realms of literature and everyday life. The many insights in it are arresting not so much for their mathematical content (although I did minor in math in college) but for the strange new perspectives they provide that are "obvious" only after they've been made. Very intriguing stuff!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 2, 1998
Format: Hardcover
I've never read a book on mathematics or science with as much voice and attitude as this one. The similarities between narrative and mathematical thinking (and their differences) are startling and sometimes subtle. What keeps you going are the unusual insights, the witty and funny turns of phrase, and that voice and intelligence which seem to rise from the page. An English major and self-styled math phobe, I learned more about story-telling from this book than from some of my lit courses.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By wiredweird HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 24, 2004
Format: Paperback
Paulos starts the book with a clearly absurd story, one that has numbers and statistics mixed in with a narrative. His question is, why is this so jarring? Why is it that people are literate and numerate, but so seldom both at once?

This book addresses that question. In part, he says that literature deals with many aspects of a few individuals, but statisticians generally study a very few aspects of very many individuals. He also notes that literature tends to treat each individual as a unique product of a unique time and place. In contrast, math and physics typically deal with cases where the specific individual is irrelevant. Any experiment on an electron gets the same result no matter which electron you use, or where, or when.

The dichotomy may not, in fact, exist. One could refer to the recent statistical studies of DNA data that have that literary much-about-few character and that often seek out the uniqueness of the study's subject. Part of Paulos's main point, however, is that reasoning in "human" prose is often just mathematical reasoning in street clothes. Other times, when day to day logic seems irrational to a simplistic "scientific" analysis, it turns out that there is a deeper kind of reasoning at work, and one that can be cast in formal terms.

Paulos delivers more than his nominal argument, though. His presentation is filled with little asides and self-referential humor. He is a logician after all, and, like the logician Lewis Carroll, uses his logic to create delightful unreason. Taken as a whole, it's a brief, enjoyable, and instructive look a the formal side of casual reasoning, and at the human side of mathematical logic.

//wiredweird
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By R. Richard Livorine on May 1, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I have read all of his books; this, unfortunately,is the worst. After finishing it, I knew nothing more, nor had anything more to think about. His other books, on the other hand, were always edifying and inspiring. His core theme is not very interesting or persuasively advanced. Of course there is a relationship between mathematical concepts and verbal expression. Mathematics inheres in the very fact of rational verbal expression. Without it, there could be no rational expression. His discussion of a more "scientific" theory of literature, is long-winded and unconvincing.The book is most interesting when he identifies and explains common errors in judgment manifest in common stories. But even here, he mostly belabors the obvious.
My final sense was that this book, unlike his previous efforts, was written primarily to make money. The intellectual love which shimmers in his other work, is completely missing.
RRL
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