A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours

A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours

by John Allen Paulos


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Employing intuitive ideas from mathematics, this quirky "meta-memoir" raises questions about our lives that most of us don't think to ask, but arguably should: What part of memory is reliable fact, what part creative embellishment? Which favorite presuppositions are unfounded, which statistically biased? By conjoining two opposing mindsets—the suspension of disbelief required in storytelling and the skepticism inherent in the scientific method—bestselling mathematician John Allen Paulos has created an unusual hybrid, a composite of personal memories and mathematical approaches to re-evaluating them.

Entertaining vignettes from Paulos's biography abound—ranging from a bullying math teacher and a fabulous collection of baseball cards to romantic crushes, a grandmother's petty larceny, and his quite unintended role in getting George Bush elected president in 2000. These vignettes serve as springboards to many telling perspectives: simple arithmetic puts life-long habits in a dubious new light; higher dimensional geometry helps us see that we're all rather peculiar; nonlinear dynamics explains the narcissism of small differences cascading into very different siblings; logarithms and exponentials yield insight on why we tend to become bored and jaded as we age; and there are tricks and jokes, probability and coincidences, and much more.

For fans of Paulos or newcomers to his work, this witty commentary on his life—and yours—is fascinating reading.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633881181
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 11/10/2015
Pages: 206
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University and the author of eight previous books, including the best-selling Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper.

Read an Excerpt

A Numerate Life

A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours

By John Allen Paulos

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2015 John Allen Paulos
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-119-8




Postponing discussion of more engaging biographical issues and more intriguing mathematics, I'll begin simply with my early enchantment with numbers, the atoms of the mathematical world. Long before the Count on Sesame Street, I loved to count. I counted anything and everything, including, my father told me, the number of little thin cylinders in a pack of his ubiquitous cigarettes, although I doubt he appreciated the cigarettes being all grubbed up with my sticky toddler fingers. I mentioned in the introduction my numerical issues with Santa Claus. A considerate little fellow, I also remember humoring my parents whenever they mentioned him. I wanted to protect them from my guilty knowledge of his nonexistence, and so I feigned belief. (This is a nice illustration of the difference between the mutual knowledge my parents and I had — of his nonexistence in this case — and the common knowledge we didn't have, not only knowing this fact but also knowing that the others knew, knowing that the others knew that we each knew, and so on.) My brother Paul, three and a half years my junior, was only a baby, so it wasn't him I was trying not to disillusion.

In any case, my qualitative "calculations" had proved to me that there were too many expectant kids around the world for Santa Claus to even come close to making his Christmas Eve rounds in time, even if he didn't stop for hot chocolate or bathroom visits, a pressing concern for me. This may sound like quite a pat memory for an author of a book titled Innumeracy to have, but I do remember making rough "order-of-magnitude" estimates that showed Santa to be way overextended.

An oddly vivid memory of a similar idea dates from my days as a fifth grader. (It's a tiny bit jarring to even record that I had "days as a fifth grader.") The teacher was discussing some war, and a girl in the front row asked how the losing country survived if all its people died in the war. She cried when she spoke, and it was clear she believed that every single soldier as well as almost all other people in a losing country died. I remember wondering if, common sense aside, she'd ever seen the aftermath to World War II depicted in any of the countless cheesy war movies I used to watch every Saturday afternoon. I was very shy in elementary school and only quietly came to my smug judgment about her numerical naïveté. Besides I really liked her and, in a ten-year-old sort of way, thought her emotionality cute. (I plead guilty to having been a ten-year-old sexist.)

Before resuming the narrative, let me flash-forward for the next few paragraphs to note that these particular memories are not mere personal remembrances, but rather they connect up with later concerns of mine about numerical estimation and innumeracy. The sad not so cute reality is that most adults don't have a much keener appreciation for magnitudes than my fifth-grade classmate. To cite a once popular American TV show, I think it's fair to conclude that they are in this sense not smarter than a fifth grader, especially when the issue is numerical estimation.

Some easy examples from a course in quantitative literacy that I often teach illustrate the point as well as they do the persistence of my fifth-grade judgmental attitude. For example, if I say to students in my class or to adult acquaintances that I heard that a Rose Bowl quarterback once shook hands with almost everyone in the stands after a startling come-from-behind victory, they are rightfully dubious that this would ever happen. Still, very few will note that, like Santa's journey, it is next to numerically impossible. Even if only half of the 100,000 fans or so at a game came down to shake hands and each handshake took, say, 4 seconds, that's 15 per minute, and 50,000 divided by 15 per minute is more than 3,300 minutes or about 7 8-hour days of handshaking. That would likely mean that the quarterback would never throw another pass.

Continuing with this perhaps jejune line of thought, I often get similar off-the-mark responses from students as well as educated neighbors if I claim to have read a headline claiming that experts fear housing costs (the total of rents and mortgages) will top $3 billion next year in the United States. They might respond by referring to the mortgage crisis, to greedy bankers, and the like, but they seldom will point out that the number is absurdly small — equaling about $10 annually per person for housing. And near total bafflement is the response to playful questions like "How fast does a human grow in miles per hour?" Alas, 62.38172548 percent of the time students and others take numbers as merely providing decoration, but not really imparting information.

Incidentally, a one-question diagnostic test for innumeracy is to ask someone to give very quickly and without resorting to a calculator the approximate average of these three numbers: 11 billion, 6 trillion, and 117 million. Only the numerate will answer 2 trillion. And a classic educational gambit assumes that the 4.5-billion-year history of the earth has been shrunk down to one year and asks you to determine how long before the end of the year various events occurred, say, the appearance of the most ancient religions as well as the appearance of you. Taking the first appearance of ancient religions to be very roughly 4,500 years ago and the first appearance of little old you, let's say, 45 years ago, the answers are only 30 seconds and .3 seconds, respectively, before midnight on December 31.

These little calculations are easily dismissible, but — and this is the point — I think they're examples of the same numerical obtuseness that afflicts many who think that a disproportionate share of American wealth goes to foreign aid, or that government earmarks for relatively paltry 50-million-dollar projects are the cause of the deficit, or that terrorism or Ebola, but not global warming, is a serious risk. And very few are aware that the two-trillion-dollar cost of the Iraq War is about 250 times the annual budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Not unrelated is the mundane risk blindness of bicyclists I see driving down narrow, busy streets near my home in Center City, Philadelphia. Many don't wear a helmet, ride with no hands on the handlebars, text away on a cell phone, and listen to music through their earbuds. At the same time they might be very concerned about pesticide residue on the apple they are eating. Quite a stretch, I know, from beliefs about Santa Claus and bicyclists to foreign aid, war, and global warming, but this book contains at least as many general musings as personal remembrances, most of them, I hope, at least somewhat related.

To continue my story, at around this same time, the fifth grade or so, I began reading newspapers, an engaging introduction to which was provided by the Milwaukee Journal's "Green Sheet." This four-page daily section was printed on green newsprint and was full of features that fascinated me. At the top was a saying by "Phil Osopher" that always contained some wonderfully puerile pun, a verbal category to which I'm still partial. There was also the "Ask Andy" column: science questions and tantalizingly brief answers. Phil and Andy became friends of mine. Were there a Twitter at the time and they had accounts, I would have been an avid follower and retweeter. And then there was an advice column by a woman with the unlikely name of Ione Quinby Griggs, who gave no-non-sense Midwestern counsel with which I often silently disagreed. Of course, I also read the sports pages and occasionally even checked the first section to see what was happening in the larger world.

Stimulated perhaps by Phil and Andy, I was captured at this young age by the idea of a kind of atomic materialism. I'd read that everything was composed of atoms, and I knew that atoms couldn't think, and so I "thought" this proved that humans couldn't think either. I was so pleased with this groundbreaking Epicurean idea (despite Phil, I didn't know the word yet) that I wrote it neatly on a piece of paper, folded it carefully, put it inside a small metal box, taped it securely, and buried it near the swing in our backyard where future generations of unthinking humans could appreciate my deep thoughts on this matter. I also remember speculating that just maybe there was a kid somewhere — in Russia, perhaps — who was as smart as I was. Pursuant to this I would scrawl "John is great" in secret places from closets to the attic, demonstrating either delusions of grandeur or simply youthful arrogance.

In any case the notion of emergent qualities, properties, and abilities didn't complicate my youthful certainty about these matters, and the dreary conclusion I came to that we couldn't really think was one I oddly found quite cheering. What I didn't find cheering was a recurring thought that some great new scientific discovery or philosophical insight would be announced, and I would find myself "seven brain cells short" of understanding it. It would be just beyond my personal complexity horizon. As a result of that irrational fear and of having read that alcohol kills brain cells, I resolved to be a lifelong teetotaler. My understanding of brains and conceptual breakthroughs has grown a little more sophisticated over the years, but the (almost) total teetotaling has persisted.


A bit later in elementary school I developed a very personal appreciation of mathematical certainty (as opposed to other sorts) that was germane to an adult concern of mine: mathematical pedagogy. Discussions of pedagogy and curricula too often tacitly assume there is a best way of imparting mathematical knowledge, igniting mathematical curiosity, and developing an appreciation for mathematics. There isn't. People's backgrounds, interests, and inclinations vary enormously and so should pedagogical techniques. As I've described in Innumeracy and mentioned in the introduction here, my interest in mathematics proper was partially a consequence of an intense dislike for my elementary school mathematics teacher, whose real occupation, it seemed, was being a bullying martinet.

I was very interested in baseball as a kid. I loved playing the game and aspired to be a major-league shortstop. (My father played in college and professionally in the minor leagues.) Even now I vividly recall the highlights of my boyhood baseball career: a game-winning home run over a frenemy's backyard fence and a diving knee-skinning catch in center field on an asphalt playground. My two worse moments: being beaned at bat by the local fastball ace and racing in from center field only to miss catching the ball that sailed over my head.

I also became obsessed with baseball statistics and noted when I was ten or so that a relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves had an earned run average (ERA) of 135. (The arithmetic details are less important than the psychology of the story, but as I remember them, he had allowed 5 runs to score and had retired only one batter. Retiring one batter is equivalent to pitching 1/3 of an inning, 1/27 of a complete 9-inning game, and allowing 5 runs in 1/27 of a game translates into an ERA of 5/(1/27) or 135.)

Impressed by this extraordinarily bad ERA, I mentioned it diffidently to my teacher during a class discussion of sports. He looked pained and annoyed and sarcastically asked me to explain the fact to my class. Being quite shy, I did so with a quavering voice, a shaking hand, and a reddened face. (A strikeout in self-confidence.) When I finished, he almost bellowed that I was confused and wrong and that I should sit down. An overweight coach and gym teacher with a bulbous nose, he asserted that ERAs could never be higher than 27, the number of outs in a complete game. For good measure he cackled derisively.

Later that season the Milwaukee Journal published the averages of all the Braves players, and since this pitcher hadn't pitched again, his ERA was 135, as I had calculated. I remember thinking then of mathematics as a kind of omnipotent protector. I was small and quiet and he was large and loud, but I was right and I could show him. This thought and the sense of power it instilled in me was thrilling. So, still smarting from my earlier humiliation, I brought in the newspaper and showed it to him. He gave me a dirty look and again told me to sit down. His idea of good education apparently was to make sure everyone remained seated. I did sit down, but this time with a slight smile on my face. We both knew I was right and he was wrong. Perhaps not surprisingly, the story still evokes the same emotions in me that it did decades ago.

So, is what this teacher did good pedagogy? Of course not, and happily I benefited from many more knowledgeable, supportive, and nondirective teachers and a variety of pedagogical approaches. Nonetheless, this particular teacher did give me a potent reason to study mathematics that I think is underrated. Show kids that with it and logic, a few facts, and a bit of psychology you can vanquish blowhards no matter your age or size. Not only that, but you can sometimes expose nonsensical claims as well. For many students this may be a much better selling point than being able to solve mixture problems or using trigonometry to estimate the height of a flagpole from across a river.

Not unrelated is another bit of mathematical pedagogy that was of benefit to me early on: board games, Monopoly in particular. In this game players roll dice to move around a board lined with properties (as well as railroads and utilities), which they can purchase with the game's money, develop by purchasing houses and hotels to occupy them, and from which they can derive rents from the other players who happen to land on these board spaces. The point of the game is the lovely one of driving one's opponents into bankruptcy. Like the best teaching, it's invisible.

For example, to determine how likely I was to land on Boardwalk or Jail I needed to figure out the probability of the various outcomes when rolling a pair of dice. Obtaining a sum of 7, I realized, was the most likely outcome, arising in 6 out of the 36 possible outcomes — (6,1), (5,2), (4,3), (3,4), (2,5), and (1,6) — whereas 2 and 12 were the least likely, each arising in only 1 of the 36 possible outcomes — (1,1) or (6,6). As anyone who has ever played the game knows empirically, Jail is the square on which players spend the most time. Thus the orange properties are good ones because they're relatively cheap and visited often by those leaving Jail.

My childhood Monopoly discoveries and competitiveness are not the point here. Rather, it is that implicit in the game, whether young players realize this or not, are a number of important mathematical ideas that one gradually absorbs while playing the game, in my case for untold hours on boring summer afternoons. Among these ideas are probability, expected value (average payouts per owned property), even Markov chains, which explain which squares are most likely to be landed upon. (The latter are systems like Monopoly that transition from one state — a player's place on the board, say — to another, the next state depending only on the present one.)

The lessons imparted by the journey around the Monopoly board are in some obvious ways relevant to the journey through life. Being cognizant of probabilities; being sensitive to possible playoffs, risks, and rewards; and being aware of long-term trends are all useful life skills.

The game, not to mention the vagaries of life, also allows for ad hoc and difficult-to-quantify changes to the rules. One such rule I remember is that if an adult enters the room when a player is rolling the dice, that player must pay a fine of $2,000. We soon abandoned this rule, however. It led to arguments when a player who was behind began suspiciously and loudly coughing when it was the leading player's turn to roll the dice. Related problems arose with the rule that allowed an occasional looting of the Monopoly bank.

Unfortunately board games are a bit passé today, but many (not all) of the same lessons and other quite new ones can be had via video games. In fact, mathematics professor Keith Devlin has advocated the use of appropriately chosen games as vehicles for imparting mathematical ideas to middle school players. Note that I used word players rather than students intentionally. The games generally are chases or fights in which the players must solve puzzles and devise strategies to best their opponents.


An almost canonical story that straddles memoir and (in my case) math is about mothers who think it is their duty to throw away arguably childish but still valued possessions when one reaches a certain age. My experience confirms the cliché and illustrates a nice bit of mathematics. As a young boy I was an avid collector of baseball cards, and for a couple of years in the late '50s I managed to collect the complete set of cards that usually came in packs of five along with a piece of pink bubble gum that I loved but would now characterize as revoltingly sugary. I remember how long it took to obtain the last two or three cards of the collection that I hadn't yet obtained. If memory serves, the last holdout was that of Charlie Grimm, who at the time was manager of either the Chicago Cubs or Milwaukee Braves, the acquisition of whose card required the purchase of hundreds of cards, all except one of which were doubles, triples, quadruples of cards I already had. After completing the set I put them in a little box, labeled them, and some years later went off to college. I've already revealed the punch line. Searching my drawers a while later, I discovered the cards missing and learned that my mother had thrown them out thinking I'd outgrown them. Since I rarely even looked at them, this was a reasonable but unsatisfying assumption. At the very least, had I held onto them into the age of eBay, I might have sold them for a nontrivial amount of money.


Excerpted from A Numerate Life by John Allen Paulos. Copyright © 2015 John Allen Paulos. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: What's It All About?, 11,
Notes, 189,
Index, 199,

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