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Numbers in the Everyday World: Critical Can Be Funny


By John Allen Paulos

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Basic Books,

212 pp., $18

AS news reports continue to appear lamenting the state of mathematics achievement among American schoolchildren, and Americans in general, we have to wonder how we could do better. What can we do to help ourselves and our children become more math literate?

John Allen Paulos, whose book ''Innumeracy'' made the bestseller lists, is a mathematician who thinks he has some of the answers. His latest book, ''A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper,'' is based on Paulos's belief that ''It's time to let the secret out.

''Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computation. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us.'' The book helps make some of the unfamiliar understandable and shows the importance of clear mathematical thinking in interpreting what we read in newspapers and magazines each day.

A strength of the book is Paulos's self-effacing sense of humor and awareness of the ''professional myopia'' among mathematicians. His story of three statisticians on a duck hunt illustrates the humor and insights.

''The first fired, and his shot sailed six inches over the duck. Then the second fired, and his shot flew six inches below the duck. At this, the third statistician excitedly exclaimed, 'We got it!'''

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The short chapters are designed to be read as you would a newspaper, glancing at the headline and deciding whether or not to read the chapter. Paulos explains enough of a concept for the non-mathematical reader to understand the basics and gives additional detail in footnotes to clarify more complex concepts.

Throughout the book, Paulos uses everyday mathematics to teach lessons about facets of mathematics from probability to chaos theory.

A handful of the 50-plus chapters fit Paulos's description of being ''merely shaggy-dog stories with no particular point,'' but most help the reader to reflect on the world as seen through mathematics.

Did you love learning about rounding off or estimating numbers? Apparently a programmer in the Social Security Administration did, because he skimmed off the last fraction of a cent from all recipients and transferred the thousands of dollars into his own account.

Do you ever question the accuracy of something you hear? Visitors to a museum were surprised to learn from a museum guard that a certain dinosaur on exhibit was 90,000,006 years old. When they asked the guard how they knew the age so exactly, he replied that he had been told it was 90,000,000 years old when he started work at the museum, six years before.

Although Paulos does include full mathematical explanations of some topics, I would have liked additional references cited in the body of the report or as footnotes so I could read the original reference for myself before accepting his conclusions.

However, the key points Paulos stresses are well worth thinking about and deserve a broader audience than a more purely mathematical treatise would have received. This book will help the reader to follow Paulos's advice to ''Always be smart, seldom be certain.''

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