Random acts

Struck By Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities by Jeffrey S. Rosenthal (HarperCollins), 263 pages $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN

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Poor Jorge Marquez. The Cuban farmer has the dubious distinction of having being struck by lightning five times.

Even though being struck by lightning just once is exceedingly rare, the record for such events would in fact most likely be set by someone who works outdoors on an island in the Caribbean.

Or so argues scientist Jeffrey Rosenthal in his first popular book, a primer on probability in everyday life. The prose is easily digestible and liberally laced with quirky references to the pop culture canon of Star Wars and The Simpsons.

Chapters, nicely structured around themes like casino odds or randomness in evolution, are carved up by little sidebars containing parables on the applications of probability theory, including a fictional poker hand that should have the nouveau poker set taking notes on when to bet and when to fold.

A section in the middle, while written in a clunky, pulpy voice, breaks up the non-fiction prose with a short narrative about a detective (appropriately named Ace Spade) who uses probability theory to bust some charlatans at the local casino.

Because he’s based at the University of Toronto, many of Rosenthal’s examples are local. He points out fallacies in the oft-heard cry from the media that our crime rate is skyrocketing by calmly looking at the numbers. But this is where he falters, because quantitative analysis can come across as cold. Knowing that several shootings occurring on a single weekend aren’t cause for alarm but a mere example of Poisson clustering hardly consoles the families of the victims.

And a lengthy section on reliability in political polls is a bit repetitive.

Write Books at susanc@nowtoronto.com

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