A Mathematician Reads the Newspaperby John Allen Paulos
In this lively volume, mathematician John Allen Paulos employs his singular wit to guide us through an unlikely mathematical junglethe pages of the daily newspaper. From the Senate and sex to celebrities and cults, Paulos takes stories that may not seem to involve math at all and demonstrates how mathematical naïveté can put readers at a distinct disadvantage. Whether he’s using chaos theory to puncture economic and environmental predictions, applying logic to clarify the hazards of spin doctoring and news compression, or employing arithmetic and common sense to give us a novel perspective on greed and relationships, Paulos never fails to entertain and enlighten.
“A wise and thoughtful book, which skewers much of what everyone knows to be true.”Los Angeles Times
“A fun, spunky, wise little book that would be helpful to both the consumers of the news and its purveyors.”Washington Post
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Read an Excerpt
The Top 10 list has become a staple of newspapers, television, and magazines for a variety of reasons, the top ten being:
1. Ten is a common and familiar number, the base of our number system. Numbers are rounded to 10 or to multiples of ten or tenths. The resulting distortion, of course, need not have much to do with reality. We're told, for example, that we use 10 percent of our brain power, that 10 percent of us consume 90 percent of the world's resources, and that decades define us. (Is there anything more vapid than explanation by decade? In the free love, antiwar sixties, hippies felt so and so; the greed of the eighties led yuppies to do such and such; sullen and unread Generation Xers never do anything.)
2. People like information to be encapsulated; they're impatient with long, discursive explanations. They want the bare facts, and they want them now.
3. The list is consistent with a linear approach to problems. Nothing is complex or convoluted; every factor can be ranked. If we do a, b, or c, then x, y, or z will happen. Proportionality reigns.
4. It's a kind of ritual. Numbers are often associated with rites, and this is a perfect example.
5. It has biblical resonance, the Ten Commandments being one of its first instances. Others are the ten plagues on the Egyptians, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the requirement that at least ten men be present for public prayer, and Joseph's ten brothers.
6. The list can be a complete story. It has a beginning: 1, 2, 3; a middle: 4, 5, 6, 7; and an end, 8, 9, 10. Many stories in the news are disconnected; the list is unitary.
7. It's easyto write; there is no need to come up with transitions. Or even complete sentences. The same holds for the 10, 50, and 100 years ago today fillers.
8. It's flexible and capable of handling any subject. Since there are never any clear criteria for what constitutes an entry on such a list, items on short lists can easily be split, and those on long lists can just as easily be combined.
9. Lists are widely read (or heard) and talked about, but don't require much room in the paper or much airtime.
10. People realize it's an artificial form and like to see if it's going to run out of good points before it gets to 10.
Meet the Author
John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University. His books include the bestseller Innumeracy, A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, and Irreligion. He lives in Philadelphia.
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