Although this book is 50 years old this year, its wisdom is needed now more than ever, as increasing computer power and our headline-obsessed media look set to drown us all in a sea of "statisticulation". This is the word coined by Darrell Huff to describe misinformation by the use of statistical material. Biased samples, dubious graphs, semi-attached figures: he describes all the usual suspects clearly and simply, rounding off with the most useful topic of all: How to Talk Back to a Statistic.
"Economic theory predicts that you are not enjoying this book as much as you thought you would", remarks Steven E. Landsburg at the start of one of the most enjoyable chapters of The Armchair Economist. The point turns out to be this: the fact that you have chosen to read it is a sign that you have probably overvalued it in relation to all the other books you could have read instead.
After years of publications on popular science and mathematics, we all know that mathematics can provide answers to questions arising from everyday life. If we want to find out when the two hands of a clock will be in exactly the same position or to calculate the volume of a doughnut, we will certainly need to use some maths. But how difficult can this be?
We live in a world that obeys many physical laws, and that can be modelled by a variety of mathematics. It is surprising what a variety of problems can be described by very similar models. Robert B. Banks does not concentrate on the most common examples of applied mathematics, but instead covers a fascinating selection of topics as varied as the US national debt, the Eiffel Tower, and the flight of golf balls.
"Mathematical Apocrypha" is, as its subtitle intimates, a book of stories and anecdotes about mathematicians and the mathematical. However, in contrast with many books about mathematicians, Steven Krantz focuses on contemporary figures such as Wiener, Littlewood and Hardy, and says very little about the usual myths regarding Pythagoras, Descartes or Euler.
"As long as a branch of science offers an abundance of problems", proclaimed David Hilbert, "so is it alive". These words were delivered in the German mathematician's famous speech at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematics. He subsequently went on to describe 23 problems which he believed would spur on mathematical thought for the upcoming century.
Most people think that mathematics consists of either just arithmetic, or a collection of very abstract and technical topics which the layperson has no chance of grasping. But this really is not true: of course many areas are too technical for the non-mathematician, but there are also many beautiful and non-trivial facts which can be expressed in ordinary language for everyone to appreciate.
John Allen Paulos is the man who popularised the word "innumeracy", meaning the all-too-common condition of ignorance and bewilderment about maths and numbers in general. A light, cheerful and ever-so-slightly smug look at the problem, his best-known book of the same name (reviewed in Issue 11 of Plus) traces the roots of innumeracy to poor teaching and offers suggestions for antidotes and innoculation.
"Dicing with Death" is a rarity: a book about statistics for the general public. Popular maths books are no longer uncommon, popular books on the physical sciences became a publishing phenomenon with Stephen Hawking, but popular statistics books are few and far between. Perhaps this fact is related to the poor public image of statistics, although it is difficult to say which is cause and which effect.