Reviewed by Rachel Cliburn
When I need a book that will force me into an existential crisis, my go-to authors are Rand or Kafka—you know, because I like to sound cool at parties. So it came as a surprise that despite my academic intentions in reading this book on the history and implications of probability, The Drunkard’s Walk blew my mind.
I’m fairly confident (95% confident, one might say) that Mlodinow didn’t set out to make people question their existence with this fun non-fiction. It’s full of human interest stories about the Greeks, gamblers, and gamers that made probability theory what it is today. Mlodinow lets the reader solve problems along with the historical figures, making math history more fun and interactive than I would have thought possible.
Mlodinow also has plenty to say to the “lay-statistician” about probability in daily life. Jury duty, medical diagnoses, sport predictions, even business decisions are victims to common misjudgments based on faulty understanding of probability. For that reason alone, this book is worthwhile.
More than that, though, The Drunkard’s Walk got under my skin. Near the beginning of the book, Mlodinow discusses the human tendency to favor stories over statistics. We have a natural, almost insurmountable tendency to find meaning and purpose in the events around us, even when (especially when?) those events are random. I started questioning my long-held life paradigms—was I just searching for patterns in a world void of order? In the later chapters, a discussion on chaos theory hammered the nail in the coffin of my sane state of mind. The sheer overwhelming permutations of possibilities that fractionate infinitely into the future…the crushing weight of chance that brought us to where we are in the world today…the endless array of paths forward, paths to which we don’t know the ending…I felt flattened by the enormity of it all. Why make choices? Why pretend that working hard has any real bearing on future happiness?
I found myself frustrated when my roommate, after I had blurted all these questions in an ever-more-feverish pitch, answered with what I saw as simple assurances and trite self-delusions. Doesn’t she see that we’re walking the lines of an infinite fractal, seemingly moving forward, but really only subjects to the whims of the chaotic law that rules our lives? It was only after talking to some other friends who had read the book that my perspective began to change. I had thought that all-pervasive chance stole every happiness from us, because we could never really work for it. They, instead, thought that chance stole every failure, because how can we be hard on ourselves if chance plays a part in our faults? This, at last, was a hopeful way to navigate life and its inherent randomness.
The Drunkard’s Walk has something in it for everyone—for the scientists who bemoan their lack of proper statistical training, for historians looking for the human side of science, for risk-takers who want to know if their next chance will pay off. For me, now, it has come to remind me to be hopeful and gracious, to not be too devastated when I fail and to not be too proud when I succeed. I recommend to everyone, and would love to hear if it sends you to the pit of despair and back like it did to me. We’ll discuss it and be super fun at parties.