A Numerate Life by John Allen Paulos (book review)

November 18, 2015 | By | Reply More

John Allen Paulos is a prominent American mathematician with eight previous books behind him that I haven’t seen. At this point in his writing career and late in life, there was a need for an autobiography. However, as he recounts throughout this book, he also deems autobiographies as having a bias, putting everything in a good perspective from the writer’s point of view purely based on what they think they remember and didn’t really want to do one. He even argues quite validly how such information can change by poor memory and such and to suspect everything. Paulos gives some very valid examples throughout and gives little snippets about his life along the way. Not totally an autobiography nor even that of philosophy but you get some insight into his love of numbers.


If anything, ‘A Numerate Life’ pieces together Paulos’ childhood and his love of mathematics, statistics and looking for patterns in everything. He also has a sense of fun and shares jokes either he made or received from others. Several of them will have you laughing out loud, especially from the late Martin Gardner, whose books I often reviewed here. Probably the biggest lesson is when he applies maths to show some things aren’t possible which is something we should all learn from. He even out-witted his maths teacher at school. Equally, when at university, he quickly learnt to ignore opinion and find out things about people for himself. Something which I’ve also practiced. Remember what he said about biases coming from other people.

As the USA is a long way away, I didn’t know that Paulos had been cited from a newspaper article he wrote regarding elections as the reason that George W. Bush got elected president, even if the judge got the wrong end of the stick. If nothing else, it’s a demonstration that anyone can manipulate figures or information the way they want them interpreted. Another odd fact is that one of his early letters to mathematician Bertrand Russell appears in the third volume of that man’s autobiography. As an enquiring mind myself, there’s a touch of kindred spirit here. Many years back at work, I had to use a mathematical formula from a book and found the example wrong and posted the query to the publisher where a red-faced mathematician author came back agreeing that I got it right. From my perspective, it was more a case of knowing I hadn’t made a mistake.

Although I suspect this book will be more of interest to those of you across the pond, Paulos’ book is no dry tome and very funny in places. Whether it explains why some people are super-numerate or not, then probably not. If you want to determine how long you’re going to live, I like the way he shows the odds and how they diminish as you get older. In the mean time, this book does show how numbers add up.

GF Willmetts

November 2015

(pub: Prometheus Books. 206 page indexed hardback. Price: $17.00 (US), $18.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-118-1. Ebook: ISBN: 978-1-63388-119-8: $11.99 (US))

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

Category: Books, Science

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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