I actually got this book for Christmas last year, yeah I am that far behind on my reading. For the past few years I usually read one book a year that takes waaaayyyy longer than it should and when I am finished I literally have to make myself pick up the next one because the last was so painful. Thankfully I already got my one painful read of the year out of the way and was mostly able to breeze through this one.
Leonard Mlodinow is a writer, professor, and a physicists. Interestingly, this is the third book of his that I have read. While researching who he is I found he also co-wrote A Brief History of Time and The Grand Design both with Stephen Hawking. Both are great, but ABHOT was near life changing. That was one of the most fascinating books and the one that got me interested in physics and got me thinking about the universe. He certainly seems like an interesting guy, He has also written a screen play and worked on the Star Trek and McVivor television shows.
This one was not quite what I thought it was going to be, but nonetheless it was still interesting. It will be difficult to do a normal review on this book, so I am just going to talk about the parts I liked and what I found interesting.
One of the most fascinating things in the whole book, to me, was when Mlodinow talked about his father, who was a Holocaust survivor. Basically his father and the other inmates had planned an escape, but the Nazis found out about it and killed the people that escaped. His father was supposed to go with them but could not for some reason. Then, the next day the Nazi general asked anyone to step forward that knew about the plot to escape or he would start killing them one by one. He stepped forward to save the lives of his friends, for whatever reason the general spared his father’s life. That is crazy to think about as Mlodinow’s entire existence came down to a point where another man decided not to kill is father. That is insane and mind boggling to think about. It really makes you think about all the instances in your parents lives or their parents lives where a simple decision in another direction could have drastically changed your life. This is basically a simplified version of the Butterfly Effect which Mlondnow discusses in the book albeit briefly. Still it is a fascinating concept to think about and if you are truly interested in it check out James Gleick’s Chaos, that is a tough read but somewhat interesting.
The layout of the book is not quite what I expected. When I read the opening few pages I thought the book was going to a super interesting read about crazy and bizarre circumstances how they came into being and the science about why they worked out the way they did. However, the author decided to use the bulk of the book to explain where the origins behind the mathematics and where they came from. Mlodinow takes the reader though nearly 400 years of history as he explains how famous mathematicians and philosophers slowly but surely carved out the math behind probability. Not only that but how that naturally led to the formation of statics and the actuarial sciences. Parts of this I found interesting but for the most part it was somewhat a slow read through these parts. However, and this is the reason I always finish a book, among so many others, I did come across a name of a guy named Paul Erdös, who is by far my favorite mathematician. If you do not know who he is, he is known as the “The Oddball’s oddball.” Certainly a fascinating dude.
Another topic that was discussed was the fact that humans like to feel they are in control. This is interesting because while there may be a few instances that we really are in control, but what was really amazing was that even the illusion of control was enough for us. There was a study mentioned in the book about a retirement home that gave residents the choice of room color, a few other things in the room, and they got to choose a plant to take care of. While on the other hand a group of other residents did not get to choose anything in their room and were given a plant to care for. What they found was that the group that got a choice had a 50% better survival rate. They concluded that having a choice and feeling in control of their surroundings had a lot to do with the outcome. That was really surprising to me. I am not a control freak like some people, but I am mostly of the mindset that the more your try to control or think you are in control, the more you realize how out of control your life is. I do not know who said this but I have heard it before, but I honestly belief it. You can worry yourself sick trying to control things that near impossible to do so in life. So might as well just try and sit back and relax and just take it all as it comes.
Another very interesting point that was discussed was the idea of hind sight, or seeing the obvious looking back. The book brought up the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese during WWII. While looking back at all the signs it was “obvious” that the Japanese were going to attack, but as the writer points out, it was obvious because we knew the outcome. He pointed out some of the warning signs could be easily interpreted in a few different ways that did not point to an attack. I found this fascinating and am guilty of this as well. When you know the outcome it is easier to say how obvious the outcome would have been. He also talked about trying to predict dye in water and the path it would take. But when the dye is making its path, the writer talks about the infinite possibilities the dye could take in the water and if it were to hit a water molecule just a bit differently it could have taken a drastically different path. Again this is important to remember when looking back. The same can be said about the 9/11 Attacks, I have heard more than once that all the warning signs were there, but knowing terrorist would use planes to crash into building is hard to predict.
There were also some fun stuff that the writer talked about, especially when talking about Wall Street analyst and portfolio managers. One manager had a incredible track record where he predicted successfully how the market would perform the following year. He would not make his prediction until February, and he had a streak of something like 20 out of 24 years predicted correctly. That is truly amazing, but when asked how he did it and what analysis he used. He simply said I base it on who won the Super Bowl. HA!!! He said if either (and I cannot remember which one was which) the NFC won the market would be up, and if the AFC won then the market would be down or vice versa. I found that funny for a few reasons, mainly because I am sure this gentlemen made quite a fortune off his success and it was nothing more than a guess. Which if you look at it is both amazing and scary. It’s scary because the markets are that unpredictable, and me like so many other Americans are betting their retirement on the market. O well we will all be in the same boat together.
There are so many fun little points in this book from job performance, to managers of movie studios and so on. These were the most interesting parts in my opinion. Still overall not a bad read, especially if you are interested in the science of it all and the history as well. Check this one out if you get a chance.