Once Upon A Number

Heather Chaplin reviews 'Once Upon a Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic Of Stories' by John Allen Paulos

By Heather Chaplin
Published November 11, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

| If the very thought of being asked to contemplate a math problem beyond rudimentary algebra makes your chest tighten, you may open "Once Upon a Number," the new book from Temple University professor and math enthusiast John Allen Paulos, with a good deal of trepidation. Once you're a third of the way into this often charming narrative, however, you may begin to think that math -- with its prickly statistics, logic, probability -- is perhaps not so heinous after all.

"Once Upon a Number" argues that our everyday lives and the formal world of mathematics inform one another. The gulf between "statistics and stories" or "narratives and numbers," Paulos writes, ought not be so wide. He aims to bridge the gap "between these two fundamental ways of relating to our world," between the literary and the scientific. "Unfortunately," he laments, "the chasm between these two cultures persists, each continuing to hold the other in mild contempt."

Paulos tackles the conflict with enthusiasm and good-natured humor. To read his book is to venture down a road paved with ideas mined from philosophy, information theory, statistics and probability, logic and literary theory. Not surprisingly, "Once Upon a Number" isn't easy lay reading: There are diagrams, algebraic equations, summaries of scientific and philosophical theories. Like rest areas on a highway, though, funny and even profound examples of how these weighty disciplines figure in our lives and literature liberally dot Paulos' work. There are enough quirky puzzles, sneaky card tricks and probability-backed schemes to keep readers awake when the going gets tough.

One example, which will surely change my life, is Paulos' explanation of why Murphy's Law carries statistical weight. If you bring 10 pairs of socks with you to the laundromat and the dryer eats six of your socks, you're 100 times more likely to be stuck with six unmated socks and only four complete pairs rather than seven complete pairs. Why? The answer involves something called statistical independence, which Paulos explains in general terms. While I may jump to the conclusion -- tell myself the story, in Paulos' words -- that the world is out to get me, in mathematical terms, I am only the victim of a counterintuitive statistical reality. In other words, it's nothing personal; it's just math.

"Once Upon a Number" would have been stronger had the thread running through its many sections been stronger. Almost every piece is fascinating -- whether critiquing statistics used in the O.J. Simpson trial, describing a scam to bilk sports gamblers or explaining the work of philosopher Saul Kripke. However, too often it's not evident how these pieces are related. By the end of the book, Paulos' purpose is clear enough, but the reading would have been smoother had he given the reader a better light by which to navigate. Still, he does an admirable job of making a potentially deadly subject -- at least for those of us who aren't mathematicians, scientists or philosophers -- not only readable but actually enjoyable. The idea that the mathematician is essentially concerned with the same questions as the novelist -- and for that matter, the secretary and the accountant -- is intriguing and strangely comforting. That Paulos pulls it off without veering too far into the technical -- or careening into the patronizing -- is a testament to the success of his book.

Heather Chaplin

Heather Chaplin is currently working on a book about video-game culture for Algonquin.

MORE FROM Heather Chaplin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------