WGBH, Boston, MA, former producer and director; writer and filmmaker.
(With mother, Ellen Kaplan) Chances Are …: Adventures in Probability, Viking (New York, NY), 2006.
Although he has worked as a television producer and as a filmmaker, Michael Kaplan also has been drawn to mathematics as a topic of interest. His book Chances Are …: Adventures in Probability perhaps serves as an example of probability, since his mother and coauthor, Ellen Kaplan, is a college professor and cofounder of the Math Circle. The purpose of the Math Circle is to excite interest in mathematics among young people, and the purpose of Chances Are … is to introduce the concepts and applications of probability theory to a general audience of any age. That audience is wide indeed. It includes military strategists, weather forecasters, game-show contestants, doctors, insurance underwriters, and, of course, gamblers.
The Kaplans address the notion that most people like to feel they have control over uncertainty, that they can "beat the odds" by intuition or divine intervention. Chances Are … reveals the more rational and scientific approaches that mathematicians and odds-makers have taken over the centuries to predict the chances of random occurrences repeating themselves in a quantifiable manner. The authors range through time and across continents as they explore ancient attempts to understand an uncertain world—or at least to make a profit from that uncertainty. The book presents the equations used to measure odds in various ways, but it also employs examples that illustrate the uses of probability to make money, to determine the chances of a terrorist attack on a specific location, or even to calculate how best to present evidence to a trial jury in order to influence a verdict. One simple example from the old game show Let's Make a Deal shows how to maximize the possibilities of getting the best prize behind one of three doors.
New York Times Book Review contributor William Grimes appreciated the way the Kaplans combine complex mathematical concepts with real-world situations of interest to a nonscholarly audience. The authors, Grimes wrote, "have hit on a great subject, and they explore it … with an enthusiasm that borders on glee." Grimes added: "You can almost hear the chalk on the blackboard as the equations and the word problems fly by at top speed…. It's a dizzying, exhilarating ride." In Booklist, Gilbert Taylor called Chances Are … "an enjoyable treat," especially for readers at the introductory level. A California Bookwatch correspondent wrote that the work is "a wonderful pick" for gamers who want to understand gambling odds, and a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded: "Never before has statistics been treated with such awe and devotion."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 2006, Gilbert Taylor, review of Chances Are …: Adventures in Probability, p. 52.
California Bookwatch, May, 2006, review of Chances Are ….
New York Times Book Review, March 31, 2006, William Grimes, "Wonders Are Possible. Alas, the Odds Are Another Story."
Publishers Weekly, February 20, 2006, review of Chances Are …, p. 153.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 2006, Waldo Jaquith, review of Chances Are ….
Penguin Group,http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/author/ (March 24, 2007), author profile.