What are your chances of dying on your next flight, being called for jury duty, or winning the lottery? We all encounter probability problems in our everyday lives. In this collection of twenty-one puzzles, Paul Nahin challenges us to think creatively about the laws of probability as they apply in playful, sometimes deceptive, ways to a fascinating array of speculative situations. Games of Russian roulette, problems involving the accumulation of insects on flypaper, and strategies for determining the odds of the underdog winning the World Series all reveal intriguing dimensions to the workings of probability. Over the years, Nahin, a veteran writer and teacher of the subject, has collected these and other favorite puzzles designed to instruct and entertain math enthusiasts of all backgrounds. If idiots A and B alternately take aim at each other with a six-shot revolver containing one bullet, what is the probability idiot A will win? What are the chances it will snow on your birthday in any given year? How can researchers use coin flipping and the laws of probability to obtain honest answers to embarrassing survey questions? The solutions are presented here in detail, and many contain a profound element of surprise.
"This is a book for people who really like probability problems," says Nahin (An Imaginary Tale; Time Travel), a professor of electrical engineering at the University of New Hampshire. If duelists place one bullet in one six-shooter and take turns firing at each other, what's the chance that the guy with the first shot wins? If antiaircraft missiles tell friend from foe with a system that fails 10% of the time (so that 10% of friendly planes get attacked), how much would the friendly fire rate drop if three such systems were used instead? Though probability problems can look, from afar, like extrapolations of common sense, many require mental contortions and counterintuitive realizations that make the right solutions hard to find. Those solutions, in turn, lead readers into neat concepts from higher mathematicsDthe Markov chain (that involves matrices) and the field called geometric probability. Nahin has written neither an academic book, nor one for an audience of novices: he wants recreational-math readers who will enjoy solving these fairly complex problems and who will compare their own achievements to the several-page solutions he gives. The volume thus has three parts of roughly equal length, all packed with graphs and equations. The first gives "The Problems" and the second yields "The Solutions"; the third explains how computers generate random ("more precisely called pseudo-random") numbers, and concludes with a series of programs that simulate the problems in part one. Nahin's sophisticated puzzles, and their accompanying explanations, have a far better than even chance of fascinating and preoccupying the mathematically literate readership they seek. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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Princeton University Press
July 01, 2002
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