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The Age of Dis-Consent

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 A Review: A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours by John Allen Paulos

By Christopher G. Moore*

Life is a puzzle filled with paradox and contradictions. Trying to make sense of one’s life has been the preoccupation of poets, painters, writers, philosophers and playwrights throughout recorded time. When it comes to a person writing a memoir he or she is selecting a few hundreds pieces and leaving countless pieces inside the box that is his or her life. And from how those pieces fit, the public and private records matching, or colliding, the reader of the memoir is made to feel a whole life has been revealed, not in it’s entirety but in the salient, defining detail.

When a mathematician picks up a pen to write a memoir, there’s another language to draw upon—symbols, equations, axioms, conjectures, and theorems. Like music is a language structured by grammar and syntax. It is a rare mathematician who can accurately translate the language of mathematics into the literary language where metaphors and similes must carry the heavy weight of meaning from mathematical objects.  John Paulos has been in the forefront of mathematicians who have opened a vital channel of communication between the elite community who are fluent in mathematics and the rest of us who struggle with a small vocabulary sufficient to count loose change.

Behind mathematics are a number of concepts including scientific measurement, objectivity, non-linear dynamics, and Gödel's incompleteness.  Without mathematics the ability to make forecast, prediction not to mention innovation and technology would collapse back into the world of magical thinking, belief and faith. In Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up
brought the rigors of mathematics to dispel the delusions behind the idea of ‘God.’ In other words, Paulos has demonstrated drone-like capability of hitting long-range targets without the need to offer equations that explain the underlying mathematics of velocity. Irreligion was a tour de force in the projection of intellectual power.

In his memoir, A Numerate Life,
Professor John Paulos displays a rare combination of literary skill honed by a broad range of reading in telling his life story. Along the way he brings his professional knowledge of mathematics as a way to help us understand his way of selecting pieces of the puzzle. His books, essays and articles follow the tradition of C.P. Snow and Bertrand Russell, seeking to bridge the rest of us to the scientific community where mathematics is the crown jewels.
His best selling book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
established his international reputation as one of mathematics foremost explainers connecting the lay public to the world of complex math. His public role as a rational, scientific thinker offers an alternative to the perverse and misguided populist pride that celebrates innumeracy in the tradition of the ‘know nothing is cool’ crowd that one finds in certain social media quarters.

Facebook posters post messages such as: “Well, another day has passed. I didn’t use algebra once.” The irony that Paulos would appreciate is that it is neglecting on small feature: the Internet and all modern technology is underpinned by a deep understanding of mathematics.  The cognitively lazy are caught in awkward constructs where they are imprisoned by their ignorance paradox, the God delusion, and biases, beyond the reach of a meta-analysis.  The Numerate Life is a lifeline for those with an open mind and willingness to explore the nature of these paradoxes and puzzles that are all around us.

John Paulos’ memoirs A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours, His Own and Probably
is a highly original and creative self-examination of the forces in his life that have given geometry to his own thinking, preoccupations and perceptions. A Numerate Life is a rare glimpse into these life-defining forces that have shaped a world-class mathematical mind. The window of perception opens a world in which mathematics becomes the default mindset to solve puzzles, and think about the probabilities of things happening or not happening over time. What makes the book memorable is the author’s fluent prose style, his humor and his knack for finding the right metaphor or illustration. It’s a twisty journey along the author’s psychological Amazon with stops along the way to explore probability, coincidence, randomness, consciousness, memories, other travel, the experiences inside the cauldron of family, friends, children, domestic household, work, and the meaning of mortality.  And there are card tricks. Paulos’s psychological journey is also shows the role of chance. This memoir has a lovely recursive element of a mathematician explaining how mathematically thinking is the best we can do when dealing with chance.

When shuffling the deck that we all are given to play, Paulos’s insight into the game, the players, the phantom of rules popping into and out of existence, the bets we make and the basis on which we place those bets, or how others place them for us, makes A Numerate Life a powerful and enduring book. You will find the intellectual and emotional toolkit displayed in this memoir a celebration of wonder, chance, dedication, wit and a window that shows how one man has played his cards in public and how we all have come out the winner. As an example of a mindset honed to embrace complexity and uncertainty, the open-ended nature of life, A Numerate Life will shine a light along your path, letting you know that you aren’t alone. Read this book.  

 *Author of Crackdown and The Age of Dis-Consent.


Posted: 11/10/2015 8:06:30 PM 


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