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The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day Hardcover – Feb 11 2014

5.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Feb. 11 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374175349
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374175344
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 2.5 x 23.4 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 499 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #116,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review

“Human beings are a superstitious lot; we see patterns everywhere. But as Hand makes clear in this enlightening book, it all comes down to the math.” ―Jennifer Ouellette, The New York Times Book Review

“Very engaging . . . If you wish to read about how probability theory can help us understand the apparent hot hand in a basketball game, superstitions in gambling and sports, prophecies, parapsychology and the paranormal, holes in one, multiple lottery winners, and much more, this is a book you will enjoy. I will go further. The statistician Samuel S. Wilks (paraphrasing H.G. Wells) said that ‘statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.' With that laudable goal in mind, The Improbability Principle should be, in all probability, required reading for us all.” ―John A. Adam, The Washington Post

“[A] lucid overview of the mathematics of chance and the psychological phenomena that can make probability seem counter-intuitive to so many . . . Hand has written a superlative introduction to critical thinking, accessible to everybody, regardless of mathematical ability.” ―New Scientist

“[An] ingenious introduction to probability that mixes counterintuitive anecdotes with easily digestible doses of statistics . . . Hand offers much food for thought, and readers willing to handle some simple mathematics will find this a delightful addition to the 'why people believe weird things' genre.” ―Publishers Weekly

“Lively and lucid . . . an intensely useful (as well as a remarkably entertaining) book . . . It can transform the way you read the newspaper, that's for sure.” ―Salon

“[Hand] leads readers through this unfamiliar land of probability and statistics with wit and charm, all the while explaining in layman's terms the laws that govern it . . . We predict there's a very good chance you'll enjoy this book” ―Success

“Enlightening and entertaining . . . an erudite but utterly unpretentious guide . . . ably and assuredly demystifies an ordinarily intimidating subject” ―Kirkus

“In my experience, it is very rare to find a book that is both erudite and entertaining. Yet The Improbability Principle is such a book. Surely this cannot be due to chance alone!” ―Hal R. Varian, chief economist at Google and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley

“Considering that The Improbability Principle comes from the keyboard of David J. Hand, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be a certain winner!” ―John Pullinger, president of the Royal Statistical Society

“Written by one of the world's preeminent statisticians, The Improbability Principle provides you with a sense of what chance and improbability really mean, and engenders an understanding that uncertainty rests at the core of nature. I highly recommend this book.” ―Joseph M. Hilbe , president of the International Astrostatistics Association and ambassador for the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology

“As someone who happened to meet his future wife on a plane, on an airline he rarely flew, I wholeheartedly endorse David J. Hand's fascinating guide to improbability, a subject that affects the lives of us all, yet until now has lacked a coherent exposition of its underlying principles.” ―Gordon Woo, catastrophist at Risk Management Solutions and author of Calculating Catastrophe

The Improbability Principle is an elegant, astoundingly clear, and enjoyable combination of subtle statistical thinking and real-world events. David J. Hand really does explain why ‘surprising' things will happen and why statistics matters.” ―Andrew Dilnot, coauthor of The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life

About the Author

David J. Hand is an emeritus professor of mathematics and a senior research investigator at Imperial College London. He is the former president of the Royal Statistical Society and the chief scientific adviser to Winton Capital Management, one of Europe's most successful algorithmic-trading hedge funds. He is the author of seven books, including The Information Generation: How Data Rules Our World and Statistics: A Very Short Introduction, and has published more than three hundred scientific papers. Hand lives in London, England.


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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Math doesn't scare me at all. But, I know many, many people who blanche at the idea of even simple formulas. So, discussing subjects that rely on math without using math is a common problem, one that many have tackled over the years, but that few have succeeded at well. Even worse, when a subject is something like statistics or probability that almost requires math to explain it properly! While this isn't a book on statistics, per se, it is about probabilities and why some things happen, and others don't, despite what perceived "odds" should be. And this book manages to convey this information without delving into the math that would make it so simple to explain to someone who loves math, yet doesn't talk down to those people who have no issues understanding math, but also manages to keep the subject interesting and informative. It's a very tender balancing act that few writers have managed to achieve. David Hand keeps that balance throughout this book, and as such it is a remarkably achievement both in terms of his writing, but also the information he passes on.

I bought this book based on a review in a magazine, thinking it would be too lightweight for me, but it would be a good, quick read that I could then pass on to others in my family who have not got the same comfort with math I have. I didn't expect to "learn" very much, simply see how the author approached the subject of probability and hope it was good enough to explain to my mother why she doesn't win the lottery every week (but having a ticket was better than not), explain to my brother why the seemingly impossible coincidences were actually not as improbably as he thought, and explain to my wife why two dice rolls at the craps table are likely to be certain numbers more than others.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book on statistics but without the mathematical details. The author explains the occurrence of events that one would expect to be extremely rare but, do in fact occur more frequently that anticipated. The author’s “improbably principle”, which is at the heart of this book, is composed of several strands: the law of inevitability, the law of truly large numbers, the law of selection, the law of the probability lever and the law of near enough. These laws are each carefully explained by the author and several useful examples are presented to illustrate each one.

No formulas are used in this book. To be honest, I found that a bit disappointing being an avid mathematics enthusiast. However, it seems clear that the author’s objective is to drive his point home in the simplest and most widely accessible way possible. And in this he succeeds admirably.

The author, a professor of mathematics with specialization in statistics, writes very clearly in a friendly, engaging and often lively style. Because if its wide accessibility, I believe that this book can be enjoyed by any interested readers, no matter what their background. Science and mathematics enthusiasts, like me, although possibly disappointed by the lack of mathematical minutiae, should still be in for a treat. I enjoyed this book immensely.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading this book won't help you to strike on lottery ticket in anyway or any kind, but certainly a better insight on coincidences, the sense of miracles – in the scientific way.

Well, I could perhaps further squeezed and simplified everything into one line of words; that is, "From time to time s***s will happened, right in front of you. So let's just move on" :)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0xa2a46054) out of 5 stars 119 reviews
77 of 82 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa28e0bd0) out of 5 stars "It Can't Happen" Happens All the Time Feb. 24 2014
By Rob Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Years ago my wife was looking through the books at a Goodwill store, and for a gag gift for my birthday she bought me a volume of poems by Rod McKuen, whose work I do not like. Helen brought it home and was going to wrap it when she looked inside. There was a dedication in the book signed by the author himself: “To Rob - May you always sleep warm. --Rod McKuen.” Now I have a volume of McKuen’s poetry I cannot throw away, but more to the point, how is it possible that completely by chance that she should pick up such a book bearing a dedication to someone of the same name? It just does not seem that such a thing could happen. It’s the sort of story told many times in _The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day_ (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by mathematician David Hand. Hand knows that it is tough to write about mathematics for the layman, perhaps even more so for probability which he says “is renowned for its counterintuitive nature, more than any other area of mathematics. Even the most eminent mathematicians have been tripped up by it.” Yet there are few equations here, there are many astounding stories, and many of Hand’s explanations are drawn from tossing a humble die.

The book starts with its main contradiction, only a seeming contradiction and one of many explained away within these pages: How is it possible that extremely unlikely things happen, and not only happen, but happen over and over? Hand gives satisfying answers, but besides being a book about extraordinarily improbable events, this is also a book that explains probability in general. Take the law of inevitability: Something has to happen. In a lottery, each possible ticket has so tiny a chance of winning that you might think it a miracle if yours is the one chosen. But what _is_ certain is that some ticket will be picked to win (or if not, the stakes will be raised for the next draw when there will be a winner). It is thus dead certain that an improbable event will occur. There’s the law of truly large numbers: if there are enough possible opportunities, any outrageously unlikely event can happen. If you toss a coin enough times, and have a near-eternity to do so, you will get a run of a hundred heads; it simply has to happen. These are understood strictly with probability theory, but we have also to supplement our “understanding” of rare events by human foibles. The law of selection, for instance, says that you can make probabilities as high as you like, in retrospect. It’s like shooting arrows into the side of a barn and then painting bullseyes around each one. All of us are liable, too, to confirmation bias; we notice events that reinforce what we wish to believe and we disregard data that does not fit. Prophets and astrologers harness this tendency all the time. And sometimes we use bad equipment for our research. Federal law has specific and strict rules for every die thrown in a casino, but dice you get in a Monopoly set are far from such strict engineering and they have bias; research into psychokinesis, the ability to control die tosses, has been criticized because it used ordinary dice.

Readers of Hand’s book will have a happy tour of many aspects of probability, delivered by a guide who is knowledgeable and funny. Even if some of the math gets by you, the astonishing stories are sure to impress you, like the ones about people who have won the lottery more than once. Spare a little sympathy, however, for Maureen Wilcox, who in 1980 bought lottery tickets in both the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. She picked all the right numbers, too. Except the numbers she picked for Rhode Island won in Massachusetts, and vice versa.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa28e0c24) out of 5 stars Dull as it gets March 23 2015
By Skeptical by nature - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've read a lot of books on statistics, both texts for work and more casual books for entertainment value. This is among the worst that I have read.

The examples are dull, recycled, and mostly uninteresting. The concepts seem too basic for the length of the book. And in the end it just is not interesting. Pass on this one.

When I read one star reviews, I often wish the reviewers would tell me what they did enjoy, so that I could calibrate their review and, potentially, so that I could find something better. So here I'll do that. Here are two books of similar nature, both of which are far better than The Improbability Principle:
1, The Drunkard's Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow
2, Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Taleb
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa28e0f00) out of 5 stars Perception versus Reality: An Excellent Overview Feb. 28 2014
By George Poirier - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a book on statistics but without the mathematical details. The author explains the occurrence of events that one would expect to be extremely rare but, do in fact occur more frequently that anticipated. The author’s “improbably principle”, which is at the heart of this book, is composed of several strands: the law of inevitability, the law of truly large numbers, the law of selection, the law of the probability lever and the law of near enough. These laws are each carefully explained by the author and several useful examples are presented to illustrate each one.

No formulas are used in this book. To be honest, I found that a bit disappointing being an avid mathematics enthusiast. However, it seems clear that the author’s objective is to drive his point home in the simplest and most widely accessible way possible. And in this he succeeds admirably.

The author, a professor of mathematics with specialization in statistics, writes very clearly in a friendly, engaging and often lively style. Because if its wide accessibility, I believe that this book can be enjoyed by any interested readers, no matter what their background. Science and mathematics enthusiasts, like me, although possibly disappointed by the lack of mathematical minutiae, should still be in for a treat. I enjoyed this book immensely.
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa27c1438) out of 5 stars I Loved It Feb. 16 2014
By Book Fanatic - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Our intuitive beliefs in the probability of various events are notoriously unreliable. In this book, the author David J. Hand, does a brilliant job of explaining how and why we get all this wrong. Chapter by chapter Hand explains various laws of probability that explain how seemingly improbable things happen and how they combine to virtually guarantee they happen. The anecdotes are interesting and the writing is well done.

This book has Amazon's "Look Inside" feature and I recommend you preview it's contents before buying.

Recommended.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa27c1450) out of 5 stars Lots of Loose Ends March 14 2014
By Alex Vary - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Improbability Principle begins by recounting what David Hand calls the simply unbelievable coincidence of three unrelated events: (1) In November 1971, author George Peifer gives an annotated copy of his novel The Girl from Petrovka to a friend. (2) His friend loses the copy in Bayswater, London. (3) In the summer of 1972, actor Anthony Hopkins waiting for an underground train at Leicester Square tube station, sees a discarded book lying on the seat next to him. It is Peifer's annotated copy of The Girl from Petrovka. Hopkins had been unsuccessfully searching London bookstores for the book. As if that was not coincidence enough, more was to follow. When he had a chance to meet the author, Hopkins told him about his find. A quick check of the annotations in the copy Hopkins found showed that it was the very same copy that Peifer's friend had mislaid.

Hand explains that theses and similar coincidences are explained by the ‘improbability principle’, which he elaborates upon in the book. He asserts that extremely improbable events are commonplace; a consequence of a collection of more fundamental laws which all tie together to lead inevitably and inexorably to the occurrence of such extraordinarily unlikely events. According to these laws, and the improbability principle, the universe is in fact constructed so that these coincidences are unavoidable: the extraordinarily unlikely must happen; events of vanishingly small probability will occur. In The Improbability Principle Hand endeavors to resolve the apparent contradiction between the sheer unlikeliness of such events, and the fact that they nevertheless keep on happening.

Hand admits that improbability principle is not a single equation, such as Einstein's famous equation, but a collection of strands which intertwine, braiding together and amplifying each other, to form a rope connecting events, incidents, and outcomes. The main strands are the law of inevitability, the law of truly large numbers, the law of selection, the law of the probability lever, and the law of near enough. Putatively, anyone of these strands is sufficient, by itself, to produce something apparently highly improbable, but it is when they combine and work together that their real power takes hold. Hand insists in the Epilogue that when these laws - the intertwining strands - are put together, virtually every simply unbelievable coincidence may be explained.

Just at the point where one expects Hand to illustrate intertwining of the strands, and event connections, he quickly concludes the book by merely listing a number of extraordinary events by which we should be unsurprised, given the improbability principle. He disappoints by abdicating an expected detailed example of at least one illustrative instance of how various strands may braid together to connect exemplary unrelated events. His detailed expositions of the law of inevitability, the law of truly large numbers, the law of selection, the law of the probability lever, the law of near enough, their apprehension by the human mind lay the foundations for the expectation. This reviewer has found one such illustration - but prefers to await the author’s genius to produce several better ones.

In the recent book My Universe - A Transcendent Reality author Alex Vary describes ‘impossible loops’ that may underlie and explain the inevitability of remarkable coincidences. In Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter expounds on the intricate coincidences of and recursive interplay of mind, matter and universe. David Hand may well have considered how the improbability principle explains Hofstadter’s paradox which he entitles 'which came first - the ribosome or the protein?' Hofstadter observes that in order for a ribosome to be made, certain kinds of proteins must be present, and rRNA must be present. Of course, for proteins to be present, ribosomes must be there to make them. Each ostensibly pre-exists the other. This and similar coincidence paradoxes are resolvable when they are considered in the context of communication, interplay and exchanges engendered by impossible loops, perhaps in concert with the improbability principle.


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