A Numerate Life by John Allen Paulos

Prometheus, ISBN 1633881180

A Numerate Life: a mathematician explores the vagaries of life, his own and probably yours - John Allen Paulos

As an avid reader of Paulos’s books since the 1990s – such as Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, and Beyond Numeracy: An Uncommon Dictionary of Mathematics – I was keen to read his latest work. In this typically playful offering, he toys, in various mathematical ways, with the very idea of biography, giving away only scraps of his own life story in what is a short but beguiling account.

Paulos discusses a host of questions: How can simple arithmetic put life-long habits into perspective? How can higher-dimensional geometry help us to see why we’re all peculiar? How can we find the curve of best fit that captures the path our lives have taken? None of these matters is addressed in a technical way, but the relaxed approach should attract more people to enjoy the insights of mathematics.

There is plenty here for skeptics too, in relation to biographies: confirmation bias, statistical misunderstandings, mortality rates, and why your friends are likely to be more popular than you are, even if you’re not a skeptic.

This fluent interweaving of personal reflection and abstract thinking is warmly recommended.

Paul Taylor