Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities by Jeffrey S. Rosenthal

Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities by Jeffrey S. Rosenthal

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover, 258 pages, 2005

Rating: 8/10

Reason for Reading: I love seemingly strange coincidences, so why not find out how strange they really are?

Synopsis: You’re playing poker and can’t decide whether to stay in or fold; or maybe you’re wondering how impressed you should really by be the latest medical report; or perhaps you’re wondering if that man walking behind you that matches the description of a loose serial killer actually is the serial killer. What do you do? If you’re Jeffrey Rosenthal, you turn to probability theory for answers (and more likely than not, reassurance). In Struck by Lightning, Rosenthal examines the questions that plague us in every day life, explaining what probability theory is, how it works, and why life might be a lot less frightening than you’ve been led to believe.

Why you should read this book: Intrigued by facts and figures? Or simply nervous about when you should and shouldn’t take a risk in life? Rosenthal takes a relaxed, easy-to-follow look at chance – and explains how chance can be less of a ‘risk’ than you might think if you understand the theory behind probability. Set your mind at ease about serial killers, scare yourself away from every gambling again, or learn to recognize when the rewards are worth the risks, and you might find your life is a lot mellower when you’re not worrying about being stuck by lightning or any of the other catastrophes the news screeches about nightly. Rosenthal smoothly soothes some of our everyday fears without taking the magic out of life’s little oddities. Definitely a fun – not to mention useful – read.

Why you should avoid this book: A solid background in math isn’t necessary to enjoy the book and learn the intended lessons, but it helps if you’re keen on understanding the theories of probability. Examples and charts help, but sometimes they can only go so far in explaining math in layman’s terms.

Opening paragraph:

When I was a graduate student at Harvard University, I booked a flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to visit some relatives. Exactly one week before my flight, there was a major accident at the same airport: an Avianca airplane missed its landing approach, ran out of fuel during its second approach, and crashed, killing 73 people.

Fabulous quotes:

I think Jean-Paul Satre got it right when he said that our choice of actions dictates the way we want everyone else to act, too. ‘In creating the man we want to be,’ he wrote, ‘there is not a single one of our acts that does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he should be.’ In other words, by our very act of voting or recycling, we are saying that we thinking everyone else should vote and recycle, too.
We should ignore extremely unlikely events when it comes to worrying about murder or terrorism, or to wasting money on lottery tickets, but we shouldn’t let small probabilities keep us from following simple safety measures like seatbelts, or from taking positive actions like voting and recycling, in the hopes that others will follow our lead.

There is an old mathematicians’ tale (first imagined by the French mathematician Émile Borel in 1913) about letting a million monkeys each hit typewriter keys at random until the end of time, and how after typing loads of garbage they would eventually reproduce all the great works of literature, purely by chance. This is indeed true, if the monkeys had an infinite amount of time available to them. But we see just how impracticable this scheme really is. It would take those monkeys over a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion years to have even a 1% chance of typing the sequence ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Human authors shouldn’t drop their pens just yet.

Also recommended: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell; The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell; The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

Also by this author: Probability and Statistics: The Science of Uncertainty; A First Look at Rigorous Probability Theory.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Perhaps it’s no surprise that Rosenthal is so interested in chance – he was born on Friday the 13th.

Would I read more by this author? If it was accessible, I might, but my math skills don’t extend to me reading his two textbooks.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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