Recommended Read: How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking – Jordan Ellenberg

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking – Jordan Ellenberg


This is an excellent and thought provoking book about mathematics and its application to everyday life. It begins with a fine example of its subject matter when Ellenberg describes how a mathematician, Abraham Wald, helped the US air force solve a problem.

The problem was where was the best place to add armoured reinforcement to the air force’s bombers. Applying armour to the entire plane would make it too heavy to fly, so they had to find the place where armour would have the most effect. Initially, the air force though the best place to apply the armour would be in the places where the returning planes had the most bullet holes from enemy fire.

Wald said no. He said the best place to put the armour was the place with the least bullet holes, in these cases the engines, as those planes hit there were the ones not returning to base.

Wald turned out to be correct.

Mathematics saved lives.

Ellenberg discusses this, and other mathematical areas (see the synopsis above for more details) such as probability – improbable things happen more often than you’d think – with wit and originality in a very engaging style. I find maths fascinating and so I loved this book, but others without a consuming interest in maths should find it interesting, entertaining and informative too, with very little actual maths in the narrative to turn them off.


The Freakonomics of math—a math-world superstar unveils the hidden beauty and logic of the world and puts its power in our hands

The math we learn in school can seem like a dull set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In How Not to Be Wrong, Jordan Ellenberg shows us how terribly limiting this view is: Math isn’t confined to abstract incidents that never occur in real life, but rather touches everything we do—the whole world is shot through with it.

Math allows us to see the hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of our world. It’s a science of not being wrong, hammered out by centuries of hard work and argument. Armed with the tools of mathematics, we can see through to the true meaning of information we take for granted: How early should you get to the airport? What does “public opinion” really represent? Why do tall parents have shorter children? Who really won Florida in 2000? And how likely are you, really, to develop cancer?

How Not to Be Wrong presents the surprising revelations behind all of these questions and many more, using the mathematician’s method of analyzing life and exposing the hard-won insights of the academic community to the layman—minus the jargon. Ellenberg chases mathematical threads through a vast range of time and space, from the everyday to the cosmic, encountering, among other things, baseball, Reaganomics, daring lottery schemes, Voltaire, the replicability crisis in psychology, Italian Renaissance painting, artificial languages, the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the coming obesity apocalypse, Antonin Scalia’s views on crime and punishment, the psychology of slime molds, what Facebook can and can’t figure out about you, and the existence of God.

Ellenberg pulls from history as well as from the latest theoretical developments to provide those not trained in math with the knowledge they need. Math, as Ellenberg says, is “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, more meaningful way. How Not to Be Wrong will show you how.

Rating: 4/5


Published by David Hadley

A Bloke. Occasionally points at ducks.

6 thoughts on “Recommended Read: How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking – Jordan Ellenberg

  1. Really enjoyed this review. Just reading by Roger Penrose “Road to Reality” – a much harder book perhaps to write a review about but similar. In my sabbatical, I have a little more time to read up on stuff & the book by Ellenberg is on my list now!


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