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The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day Hardcover – February 11, 2014

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The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day + How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 11, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374175349
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374175344
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #18,466 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Multiple lottery wins. Unexpected financial meltdowns. Lightning striking the same person several times. These events, while astounding, are nonetheless to be expected, as mathematics professor Hand capably explains in this well-plotted book. The principle hinges on the idea that seemingly improbable events, from the individual to the cosmic level, are commonplace due to several factors. Academic but not dry, the concepts are presented in a relevant way and at a good clip, with some eye-catching examples. Hand notes the counterintuitive nature of certain aspects of probability, as well as the history of how understanding in the field has developed. A touch of levity goes a long way toward making the subject engaging. As Hand shows, probabilities are also about people—what we view as remarkable and why. Far from being disillusioning or removing the magic from these events, the elegant framework beneath marvelous events is something worth marveling at in itself. For those interested in an understanding of the principles of probability, this account is sure to be an odds-on favorite, even for those without much background in the subject. --Bridget Thoreson


“Human beings are a superstitious lot; we see patterns everywhere. But as Hand makes clear in this enlightening book, it all comes down to the math.”
—Jennifer Ouellette, The New York Times Book Review

“Very engaging . . . If you wish to read about how probability theory can help us understand the apparent hot hand in a basketball game, superstitions in gambling and sports, prophecies, parapsychology and the paranormal, holes in one, multiple lottery winners, and much more, this is a book you will enjoy. I will go further. The statistician Samuel S. Wilks (paraphrasing H.G. Wells) said that ‘statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.’ With that laudable goal in mind, The Improbability Principle should be, in all probability, required reading for us all.”
—John A. Adam, The Washington Post

"[A] lucid overview of the mathematics of chance and the psychological phenomena that can make probability seem counter-intuitive to so many . . . Hand has written a superlative introduction to critical thinking, accessible to everybody, regardless of mathematical ability."
New Scientist

"[An] ingenious introduction to probability that mixes counterintuitive anecdotes with easily digestible doses of statistics . . . Hand offers much food for thought, and readers willing to handle some simple mathematics will find this a delightful addition to the 'why people believe weird things' genre."
Publishers Weekly

"Lively and lucid . . . an intensely useful (as well as a remarkably entertaining) book . . . It can transform the way you read the newspaper, that’s for sure."

"[Hand] 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 . . . We predict there's a very good chance you'll enjoy this book"

"Enlightening and entertaining . . . an erudite but utterly unpretentious guide . . . ably and assuredly demystifies an ordinarily intimidating subject"

“In my experience, it is very rare to find a book that is both erudite and entertaining. Yet The Improbability Principle is such a book. Surely this cannot be due to chance alone!”
—Hal R. Varian, chief economist at Google and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley

“Considering that The Improbability Principle comes from the keyboard of David J. Hand, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be a certain winner!”
—John Pullinger, president of the Royal Statistical Society

“Written by one of the world’s preeminent statisticians, The Improbability Principle provides you with a sense of what chance and improbability really mean, and engenders an understanding that uncertainty rests at the core of nature. I highly recommend this book.”
—Joseph M. Hilbe , president of the International Astrostatistics Association and ambassador for the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology

“As someone who happened to meet his future wife on a plane, on an airline he rarely flew, I wholeheartedly endorse David J. Hand’s fascinating guide to improbability, a subject that affects the lives of us all, yet until now has lacked a coherent exposition of its underlying principles.”
—Gordon Woo, catastrophist at Risk Management Solutions and author of Calculating Catastrophe

The Improbability Principle is an elegant, astoundingly clear, and enjoyable combination of subtle statistical thinking and real-world events. David J. Hand really does explain why ‘surprising’ things will happen and why statistics matters.”
—Andrew Dilnot, coauthor of The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life

Customer Reviews

Hand has written a book that CAN be read by dummies.
Randal D. Locke
It is a good reading, well written with abundant examples of real oddities.
It is thus dead certain that an improbable event will occur.
R. Hardy

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 57 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 24, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Years ago my wife was looking through the books at a Goodwill store, and for a gag gift for my birthday she bought me a volume of poems by Rod McKuen, whose work I do not like. Helen brought it home and was going to wrap it when she looked inside. There was a dedication in the book signed by the author himself: “To Rob - May you always sleep warm. --Rod McKuen.” Now I have a volume of McKuen’s poetry I cannot throw away, but more to the point, how is it possible that completely by chance that she should pick up such a book bearing a dedication to someone of the same name? It just does not seem that such a thing could happen. It’s the sort of story told many times in _The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day_ (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by mathematician David Hand. Hand knows that it is tough to write about mathematics for the layman, perhaps even more so for probability which he says “is renowned for its counterintuitive nature, more than any other area of mathematics. Even the most eminent mathematicians have been tripped up by it.” Yet there are few equations here, there are many astounding stories, and many of Hand’s explanations are drawn from tossing a humble die.

The book starts with its main contradiction, only a seeming contradiction and one of many explained away within these pages: How is it possible that extremely unlikely things happen, and not only happen, but happen over and over? Hand gives satisfying answers, but besides being a book about extraordinarily improbable events, this is also a book that explains probability in general. Take the law of inevitability: Something has to happen.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Book Fanatic TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 16, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Our intuitive beliefs in the probability of various events are notoriously unreliable. In this book, the author David J. Hand, does a brilliant job of explaining how and why we get all this wrong. Chapter by chapter Hand explains various laws of probability that explain how seemingly improbable things happen and how they combine to virtually guarantee they happen. The anecdotes are interesting and the writing is well done.

This book has Amazon's "Look Inside" feature and I recommend you preview it's contents before buying.

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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By G. Poirier on February 28, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This is a book on statistics but without the mathematical details. The author explains the occurrence of events that one would expect to be extremely rare but, do in fact occur more frequently that anticipated. The author’s “improbably principle”, which is at the heart of this book, is composed of several strands: the law of inevitability, the law of truly large numbers, the law of selection, the law of the probability lever and the law of near enough. These laws are each carefully explained by the author and several useful examples are presented to illustrate each one.

No formulas are used in this book. To be honest, I found that a bit disappointing being an avid mathematics enthusiast. However, it seems clear that the author’s objective is to drive his point home in the simplest and most widely accessible way possible. And in this he succeeds admirably.

The author, a professor of mathematics with specialization in statistics, writes very clearly in a friendly, engaging and often lively style. Because if its wide accessibility, I believe that this book can be enjoyed by any interested readers, no matter what their background. Science and mathematics enthusiasts, like me, although possibly disappointed by the lack of mathematical minutiae, should still be in for a treat. I enjoyed this book immensely.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Alex Vary on March 14, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Improbability Principle begins by recounting what David Hand calls the simply unbelievable coincidence of three unrelated events: (1) In November 1971, author George Peifer gives an annotated copy of his novel The Girl from Petrovka to a friend. (2) His friend loses the copy in Bayswater, London. (3) In the summer of 1972, actor Anthony Hopkins waiting for an underground train at Leicester Square tube station, sees a discarded book lying on the seat next to him. It is Peifer's annotated copy of The Girl from Petrovka. Hopkins had been unsuccessfully searching London bookstores for the book. As if that was not coincidence enough, more was to follow. When he had a chance to meet the author, Hopkins told him about his find. A quick check of the annotations in the copy Hopkins found showed that it was the very same copy that Peifer's friend had mislaid.

Hand explains that theses and similar coincidences are explained by the ‘improbability principle’, which he elaborates upon in the book. He asserts that extremely improbable events are commonplace; a consequence of a collection of more fundamental laws which all tie together to lead inevitably and inexorably to the occurrence of such extraordinarily unlikely events. According to these laws, and the improbability principle, the universe is in fact constructed so that these coincidences are unavoidable: the extraordinarily unlikely must happen; events of vanishingly small probability will occur. In The Improbability Principle Hand endeavors to resolve the apparent contradiction between the sheer unlikeliness of such events, and the fact that they nevertheless keep on happening.
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