Some lockdown reading

Thursday 12th November 2020

In no particular order, here are some books I would recommend to students to enhance and enrich their understanding of maths, and how it is actually used in real life...

The Lady Tasting Tea, David Salsburg (Henry Holt and Company, 0-8050-7134-2)

This is a lovely little book describing in non-technical language the history of modern statistics. The title refers to the contentious issue of whether there is any difference in the taste of a cup of tea depending on whether one puts the milk in first, then the tea, or vice versa. The book begins with an account of how this issue prompted Ronald Fisher to devise the principle of hypothesis testing, and also why for so long the ‘proper’ critical value for p was taken as 0.05.

The Tiger That Isn’t, Michael Blastland & Andrew Dilnot (Profile Books, 9-7818-4668-111-0)

In a similar spirit to Darrell Huff’s masterpiece How to Lie with Statistics, this is a very entertaining book about how ‘killer numbers’ can be used by the unscrupulous to captivate, distort and mislead, and how anyone can, with a little thought, debunk them. For instance, how some hospitals ‘gamed’ the system to meet the maximum four-hour waiting time for treatment in A&E by admitting casualties without actually treating them—once admitted the patients are no longer waiting!

Super Crunchers, Ian Ayres (John Murray, 978-0-7195-6464-2)

This is a very accessible book about data mining and its pioneers. One chapter tells how a mathematician, using regression on weather data, was better at predicting the best vintages than wine connoisseurs. Another reveals how the standard deviation of points scored exposed game fixing in NCAA basketball competitions. Well worth a read.

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (Penguin, 978-0-141-01901-7)

A classic of its genre, Freakonomics reveals the impact incentives have for moulding human behaviour. The titles of some of the chapters are What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?, Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?, and What makes a perfect parent?

By Martyn Quigley

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