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Posted September 15, 2013
First off, some disclaimers are needed. I have known the author of 52! since high school (and probably before, since our school was K-12). He provided me a complimentary copy of his book to review, although I’m fairly sure that professional book reviewers don’t buy all their books. And, I have never written a book review, much less a book. However, Mike only asked that I be “honest and gentle” and declined an offer to read it before I post it, so the review is mine alone.
52! Fifty-Two Factorial is categorized on the back cover as “Mathematics / Discrete Mathematics.” True, there are some moderately difficult formulas in there. And yes, there are chapters numbers such as 6.28 (2*pi). However, the book also touches on philosophy, religion, and history, with some “down-home” Southern humor and sayings mixed in. I wondered when I began how Mike would ever make a book out of 52!, but he did it. Overall, it’s an enjoyable read on an uncommon thought about a very common item.
I don’t think I’m giving too much by explaining the title. 52! is the mathematical formula for the number of possible hands in a standard deck of cards that are possible from dealing all 52 cards at one time. The details are in the book, but suffice it to say that 52! is a really, really big number. Most of the book is devoted to calculating different values, such as the mass of the sun in grams, to compare to the value of 52! (it’s not even close).
It is pretty obvious that the author has some training as a teacher. The chapters evolve like classroom lessons, complete with historical references (using trig and the sun to measure distances between ancient cities), experiments you can try at home (to determine the acceleration of gravity), and even an occasional off-topic thought or two. Each lesson is explained in-depth in a logical fashion. Most of them flow very well, although a few are bogged down by the sheer weight of the math involved (i.e., calculating the “observable universe”). I found the calculation and results of the number of possible unique humans, based only on the 0.1% of DNA which differs between people, to be fascinating. There are also very good explanations of the difference between combinations and permutations, including why a “combination” lock should actually be called a “permutation” lock.
All the math leads to the final few chapters of the book, where the author’s conclusions regarding religion are revealed. Again, I won’t ruin it for the reader, but I’ll say that I found it to be well-reasoned and not preachy, which strikes a balance between acceptance of the knowable and the unknowable. It’s a very commonsense approach as is befitting a “…borderline math nut with a common sense approach to life” (as Mike describes himself on the back cover).
Of course, not everything about the book was perfect. While the illustrations were clear and well done, the photos were not of as good quality. However, this is a minor carp since they were general in nature. A the asides were at times distracting. Overall, however, it’s a good book that I enjoyed reading, and I recommend that you give it a try. You’ll never look at a deck of cards quite the same way again.
Review by: Jim Whitbeck