Dice World: Science and Life in a Random Universe

Brian Clegg

Why I looked at this book

This book is a contender for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

First impressions

This book has a chapter zero, mentioning that while writing it the author read Taleb's The Black Swan. I hope that he discusses 'Black Swan' type events in this book, that is occasions when the normal rules don't seem to apply, such as Keynes umbrella and Spock's act of desperation in The Galileo 7. He mentions chaotic (as opposed to classical) randomness, but I'm not sure that's the same thing.

Main review

Even after reading the book I'm not sure what it means by chaotic probability (as opposed to classical probability). By the usual definition of chaos, it should relate to events which seem random because small differences are magnified, but that includes throwing dice, which Clegg definitely includes in classical probability. Is it supposed to relate to the financial problems of the last few years - well those were less about a different kind of probability and more about using the wrong probabilistic models - trying to shoehorn everything into the normal distribution. (I can't help thinking Clegg should have mentioned what Henri Poincaré said about Panurge's sheep) And the book didn't really have a discussion of the Galileo 7 type of probability that I was hoping for.

The thing is that this isn't a deep book, it's an easy to read book, in which Clegg introduces the reader to various areas of science. Hence I shouldn't criticise it for not going deeper into the issues I'm interested in. But I will anyway, or at least I crticise Clegg for making pronouncements which he doesn't really live up to. For instance he rightly criticises creationists for thinking that finding a problem with evolution would promote their ideas as the only alternative, but when he gets on to quantum theory he claims that experimental results against local hidden variables leave randomness as the only alternative - is it? Clegg also criticises those who make up a story to explain what happens in their lives without any real evidence, but when it gets something in Clegg's life - success in selling books - he claims that that of authors such as J.K.Rowling is mostly due to chance. Does he have any evidence for this? Maybe Rowling does have some hard to quantify intuition about what readers are really looking for.

I think I would have thought more highly of this book if it didn't have one glaring omission - there are no notes or suggestions for further reading at the end. Clegg gives readers a glimpse of various topics - the three body problem, thermodynamics, Bayes theorem - but doesn't help those who want to find out more about any of them.

Reviews Elsewhere

Not a lot of reviews for this book, either for Amazon Reviews or Goodreads. Gets a fairly average score, but quite a few of the reviews are negative, including both Goodreads Reviews, finding that the book lacks focus and that the subject is treated better elsewhere.