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The Arithmetic of Life and Death

The Arithmetic of Life and Death

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by George Shaffner

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Whether you realize it or not, numbers are everywhere--and integral to almost every facet of your life . . . from your next raise in pay to the inevitable rise of inflation, your weekly family budget to your end of the national debt. And as George Shaffner amazingly reveals, there are discerning answers (and a great measure of comfort) in numbers. In The Arithmetic of


Whether you realize it or not, numbers are everywhere--and integral to almost every facet of your life . . . from your next raise in pay to the inevitable rise of inflation, your weekly family budget to your end of the national debt. And as George Shaffner amazingly reveals, there are discerning answers (and a great measure of comfort) in numbers. In The Arithmetic of Life, he applies the basic principles of mathematics--addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division--to some of the most profound and just plain puzzling questions of our time.

Illuminated with anecdotes, humor, and insight, each chapter explains a unique part of life that can be understood only through the magic of numbers. Whether it's an unconventional theory on why more things go wrong than right, a simple calculation of how much it will cost you to smoke for a lifetime, why crime (accumulatively) doesn't pay, or a glimpse into the probability of life after death, this enlightening and lucidly reasoned book will forever change the way you think about numbers--and the world around you.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Seattle Post Intelligencer
An utterly beguiling gem of a book.
American Way
A surprisingly philosophical exploration into how math affects and uncovers the truths about our lives.
Washington Post
Life not adding up? Try math.
News Tribune
A wonderful blend of intelligent provocation, brainy entertainment and occasional reassurance.
From the Publisher
"AN APPEALING MIX OF COMMON SENSE AND SOLID REASONING . . . Written in lively style, with sly wit . . . Shines light into several interesting corners of everyday life, often with surprising results—and the numbers don't lie."
—Kirkus Reviews

"Shaffner's writing is . . . clever and clear. . . . It's highly probable that many readers will learn from it."
—Publishers Weekly

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

The Probability That
You Would Be You
"What is the odds so long as the fire
of soul is kindled . . ."
Since some six billion people now occupy planet Earth, one could conclude
that human life is as common as dirt in Denmark. There is, however, some
evidence to the contrary. Gwendolyn Sharpe, anthropology student, and
daughter of a prominent Northwestern personality, is a good example.

Like every human being, Gwendolyn is a construction
of forty-six chromosomes. Twenty-three came from her mother, Cecilia, and
the other twenty-three came from her estranged father. Each of her parents
had forty-six chromosomes from which to choose, nicely organized in
twenty-three pairs. Through the miracle of natural selection, either one
of each chromosome pair from each of her parents could have been chosen
for production. The resulting twenty-three chromosomes from each parent
were then paired to make Gwendolyn's forty-six.

The odds that Gwen would get the exact twenty-three chromosomes that she
received from her mother were one-half times one-half times one-half times
one-half, a total of twenty-three times, or .5 to the twenty-third power.
That means that the probability that Cecilia would give Gwendolyn the
twenty-three chromosomes she got was about one in ten million
(10,000,000), which was less likely than winning the state lottery (about
one in seven million in Washington, although the odds are longer in some

The odds that Gwen would get the twenty-three chromosomes she got from her
father were also about one
in ten million. So, the probability that Gwendolyn would be Gwendolyn was
about one in 100 trillion (one in 100,000,000,000,000). On any given day,
a win in the Washington state lottery would be around fourteen million
times more likely than a Gwendolyn Sharpe.

But that assumes the existence, union, and productive sex lives of Gwen's
mother and father. Gwendolyn's parents met at a small Pacific Northwest
university with a student population of 1,000 men and 1,000 women. Like so
many young women back then, Gwen's mother hoped to meet and marry the man
of her dreams before leaving college with a degree in accounting. Like so
many young men back then, Gwendolyn's father planned to practice a few
of the more physical rituals of marriage throughout the
six years it would take him to obtain an undergraduate de-
gree in political science. Correctly assuming, however, that Gwendolyn's
mother would inevitably prevail, the maximum probability of the productive
union of her parents was a one-in-a-thousand long shot, which lengthened
the odds of Gwendolyn's existence to about one in 100 quadrillion (1 in

However, the odds of Gwendolyn's mother's being her mother were at least
one in 100 quadrillion, too. The probability that her father would be her
father was the same. So the odds of Gwendolyn's being Gwendolyn were
closer to one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. But that figure excludes
consideration that either parent might have been infertile, that either
might have been killed before conception, or that they might have divorced
before the moment of magic that produced Gwendolyn or any of her brothers.
Nor has there been any inclusion of the extreme unlikelihood of the
existence of Cecilia's parents, who were from Yakima and Chewelah, or her
husband's parents, or their parents, or their parents, ad infinitum.

Netting all of this down to scientific terms, the odds that Gwendolyn
would be Gwendolyn were less than one in a jillion gazillion. The same is
true for each of us. Against such long odds, every life is a miracle of
proportion, courtesy of nature. Thus, the existence of so many billions of
people is not evidence of the commonness of life but a testament to the
infinite scale of nature's benevolence.

Acceptance of such an improbable gift is not without obligation. An annual
donation to the National Wildlife Fund is sweet, but the gift of life
requires payment in kind. In order to fairly compensate nature for her
generosity, each of us must help others to enjoy the gift, we must never
harm or take the gift from another, and we must each live our own life to
its fullest extent, despite the inevitable bumps in the road.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

George Shaffner has worked in the computer industry for twenty years, most recently as CEO or COO of three international computer companies. He is the father of three children, who are all math refugees.

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Arithmetic of Life and Death 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Shaffner takes a clever idea, develops it to a point, but then leaves it short by revealing bias, inconsistency, and a weak understanding of basic economics. Even though I thought several discussions were worth reading including 'You Can('t) Be Anything You Want,' 'The Sum of All Decisions,' 'The Odds of Getting Caught' and 'Streaks and the Law of Averages,' I became cynical after discovering the following problems. First of all, Shaffner argues that confused teens can be shown the value of an education by taking the average incremental earnings attributed to higher education and dividing this by the number of hours needed to get this education to ultimately arrive at an impressive hourly wage. Although the message is good, the logic is weak because it completely ignores the time value of money, which is something even teenagers seem to grasp quite well. Shaffner also argues that smoking causes a significant number of deaths, but in doing so seems to incorrectly imply that kicking this irrational habit will somehow make you immortal whereas we all know that eventually everyone has to die from something. Another problem for me is that Shaffner applies the concept of inflation in a selective and self-serving fashion. For example, he mentions that costs may rise 5% per year but does not include the fact that wages will undoubtedly go up as well. And finally, Shaffner complains about the evils of our national debt, revealing his ignorance to the fact that (1) it is capped by law, (2) interest paid on debt represents a future benefit as well as a future liability, and (3) the debt to income ratio of the U.S. is currently very low, historically speaking. Along the way, Shaffner also takes what seems to be unjustified swipes at government in general, which made me feel like he was suppressing some kind of anti-government agenda. If you can see past these problems, The Arithmetic of Life and Death will be a fun, fast read. Otherwise, you may be better served to keep your expectations in check.