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Dueling Idiots and Other Probability Puzzlers

Paul J. Nahin
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Fernando Q. Gouvêa
, on

Another belated notice, but hey, if the publishers don't send 'em, we can't review 'em. Sometimes we aren't even aware they exist! We never saw the hardcover edition of this one; here is the paperback, though, with an updated preface.

OK. Paul Nahin is the author of An Imaginary Tale: the story of the square root of -1, reviewed on Read This! several years ago. Ed Sandifer found it fascinating but demanding: "Like complex numbers themselves, this book has two parts. The first half of Nahin's book is a pleasant and anecdotal introduction to complex numbers, full of ideas and stories that are seldom seen in the popular literature. The second half requires a good deal more concentration, and, appropriately, leads us into some greater complexities."

Nahin's Dueling Idiots and Other Probability Puzzlers is also a blend of the pleasant and anecdotal and the more technical, but the mix is more uniform. The book is a collection of puzzles and problems in probability. There are 21 problems, from "How to Ask an Embarassing Question" (how to get honest answers to a question that people may be embarassed to answer truthfully) to "When Theory Fails, There is Always the Computer" (simulate away!). Each problem is stated in a short essay. The solutions of the problems follow, also embedded in short essays. In all, stating and explaining the problems takes 80 pages, and the solutions use up 94 pages. At the back of the book, there is a longer essay on "random" number generators. There are also many pages of program listings for the many MATLAB programs the author uses.

Nahin is an engineer, and it shows. The approach and the problems are practical and down-to-earth. There are lots of formulas and equations, so this is not really a book for the mythical "general" reader, but it is a book that people who aren't afraid of mathematics and who like problems will enjoy.

Fernando Q. Gouvêa is the editor of MAA Reviews.

 Acknowledgments ix
Preface xi
Introduction 3
The Problems 15
1. How to ask an Embarrassing question 15
2. When Idiots duel 16
3. Will the light Bulb glow? 22
4. Tho Underdog and the World Series 26
5. The Curious Case of the Snowy Birthdays 27
6. When Human Flesh Begins to Fail 34
7. Baseball Again, and Mortal Flesh Too 51
8. Ball Madness 56
9. Who Pays for the Coffee? 42
10. The Chess Champ versus the Gunslinger 45
11. A Different Slice of Probabilistic Pi 49
12. When Negativity is a No-No 50
15. The Power of Randomness 51
14. The Random Radio 52
15. An Inconceivable Difficulty 55
16. The Unsinkable Tub is Sinking! How to Find Her, Fast 57
17. A Walk in the Garden 58
18. Two Flies Stuck on a Piece of Flypaper--How Far Apart? 61
19.The Blind Spider and the Fly 62
20. Reliably Unreliable 68
21. When Theory Fails, There is always the Computer 71
The Solutions 81
Random Number Generators 176
"Some things Just Have to be Done By Hand!" 198
MATLAB Programs 202
Index 267
About the Author 271