Book recommendation: How Not to Be Wrong

Today, I finished reading How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. This is a very enjoyable, very well-written, general-audience book about mathematics, which I recommend whole-heartedly.

Ellenberg, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin, does a great job weaving together a plethora of mathematical topics, including non-Euclidean geometry, probability, statistics, and mathematical analysis of voting systems. He writes in a way that someone who only vaguely remembers—or never really understood—high school algebra would be able to follow and enjoy. His exposition is made more lively by a cast of historical and contemporary characters, some famous and some primarily known only to mathematicians, including Abraham Wald, Bernhard Riemann, Teddy Roosevelt, Francis Galton, Voltaire, Nicolas de Condorcet, David Hilbert, Ronald Fisher, Antonin Scalia, and Nate Silver. (My favorite line in the book is the one in which Ellenberg describes Silver as a “Kurt Cobain of probability.”)

The best part of the book is about how the Massachusetts Lottery ran a game in which it was occasionally profitable to play (that is, there were some drawings in which the expected value of a ticket’s winnings was higher than the price of a ticket). Of course, some smart people (e.g. an MIT student) figured this out and recruited investors to buy absurd numbers of tickets for the profitable drawings. In the course of telling this story, Ellenberg weaves in discussions of finite geometries and error-correcting codes, both of which are relevant in describing how one buys thousands of lottery tickets without accidentally having to split winnings with yourself.

I think it would be awesome to use this book in a gen-ed math class.