0243 | Chances Are… | Michael & Ellen Kaplan


Context: Finished this off as we stayed with friends in Flackwell Heath.

Got this for my last birthday and thoughtI’d better finish it before my next birthday comes round! I started this after finishing Think and, appropriately, it pretty much picked up where that left off: mathematics and questions of life the universe and everything. It wasn’t as hard going as Think thankfully, in fact, some bits of it were very interesting.

The book deals with probability by first of all introducing it in the first couple of chapters and then discussing its influence on various contexts of our lives, namely: gambling, insurance, healthcare, law, weather forecasting, conflict, thought and statistics.

By far the most enjoyable chapter for me was gambling which showed that it’s pretty much a mug’s game no matter which way you look at it. There were bits that were engaging, particularly in the weather forecasting bit where we touched on, but didn’t really explore, the fascinating topic of chaos. The history of probability and statistics is presented through each of these topics so you get a good overview of each before moving on.

The Kaplans love mathematics a tad more than I’m comfortable with. “Even if your taste is not for formal mathematics, you have a glimpse here of its entrancing power.” Entrancing? Yeah, whatever… Thankfully, they don’t dwell on this after the first couple of chapters and, where they do mention it, you can read the book fine even if you don’t get it (which I didn’t.) I’d have liked a bit more detail of the lives and the people involved but on the whole, there are a lot of intresting characters in the history of chance and they do a good job of presenting them and the influence of chance on their areas of work.

And there are some choice morsels among the facts they present:

  • non-life insurance claims in the US total over $1 billion a day
  • when you release one photon of light towards two slots, the resulting image indicates that the photon goes through both slots at once, a seeming impossibility. However, if you attempt to measure this, the photon goes through only one.
  • all the molecules in a sphere of radius 0.00001 cm will occupy the same position only once every 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times the age of the universe

In fact, the book is cram full of stuff like this to keep your attention.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by their conclusions. They elaborate some amazing insights into order out of chaos (such as probability curves) but conclude that life, the universe and everything is all just a bit random anyway and that any order imposed on it is a product of our own philosophies and theories. Nope. I just can’t accept that. Life is just way too finely balanced. It speaks to me of some other order, inherent in it all, keeping us all in balance even though we attempt to head for hell in a handbasket.

We search for certainty and call what we find destiny.


The problem with life is that we have to live it from the beginning, but it makes sense only when we see it from the end.

And [we must be brave] because each judgement, each decision we make, if made well, is part of the broader, essential human quest: the endless struggle against randomness.


Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement
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