The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow

I confess to math envy. I can understand general concepts and ideas if they’re presented in verbal form. Show me a page full of numbers and ┬ámathematical symbols and my brain freezes up like a sprinkler at the North Pole. That’s why I find books like this one so helpful. Maybe it’s not helpful, since I can finish a book like this and have no less arithmophobia than when I started, but at least I can wrap my head around the concept.

“The drunkard’s walk” is a phrase that came into use in the 1930s to describe random occurrences, everything from throwing dice to the movement of molecules through water. Those and dozens of other concepts you need to deal with daily are covered in the book, some of which are too close to life or death to trust to intuition.

Mlodinow has a friendly and easy approach to these and other instances of making sense of numbers and statistics in order to make better decisions in our lives. With this he gradually draws us through a history of mathematics and thoughts about randomness from the ancient Greeks, through the invention of basics like plus and minus signs, through quantum mathematics and string theory. Even for this aging English major the trip was easy and pleasant.

Among the ideas talked about include making the best decisions on Let’s Make a Deal when you’re confronted with three doors. You’ll also learn whether to add or multiply variables when deciding on a roll of the dice or other random event, as well as the dangers of “the gambler’s fallacy”, which applies as much to investing as it does to gambling. The author also touches on polling and voting, explaining the “margin of error”. He even teaches how to understand what doctors and lawyers are saying or hiding when they use statistics. Doctors for medical and pharmaceutical statistics, lawyers for probabilities on things like DNA and crime statistics.

The book has now been out just short of 10 years. It’s still useful and informative with few examples to tax your memory for things that happened a decade ago. The book is still available in new and used paper and hard editions, Kindle, and audio editions.