Paulos, John Allen 1945-

views updated

PAULOS, John Allen 1945-

PERSONAL: Born July 4, 1945, in Denver, CO; married; wife's name Sheila (a teacher and writer); children: Leah, Daniel. Education: University of Wisconsin—Madison, Ph.D., 1974.

ADDRESSES: Home—Dresher, PA. Office—Department of Mathematics, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, associate professor, beginning 1974, professor of mathematics, 1980–, presidential scholar, 1990–.

MEMBER: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Association for Symbolic Logic, American Philosophical Association, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.

AWARDS, HONORS: Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2003.



Mathematics and Humor, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1980.

I Think, Therefore I Laugh: An Alternative Approach to Philosophy, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1985.

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1989.

Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.

A Mathematician Reads the Newspapers, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1995.

Once upon a Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic of Stories, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1998.

A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to periodicals, including Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and New York Times. Monthly columnist for Member of editorial board, Philadelphia Daily News.

ADAPTATIONS: Innumeracy has been adapted as an audiocassette; A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper has been adapted as a four-part series on BBC television.

SIDELIGHTS: Recognized as a talented interpreter of mathematical concepts, math professor John Allen Paulos is author of several books on the subject. Paulos became the focus of national attention with the publication of his Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, which aimed to dispel the myth that math is a dull and impersonal discipline as well as prove that the subject is relevant to the lives of non-mathematicians. Paulos, according to Washington Post Book World contributor Curt Suplee, is a "humane and enthusiastic mentor … who does for mathematics what The Joy of Sex did for the boudoir interface."

In his first book, Mathematics and Humor, Paulos uses principles of mathematics, logic, linguistics, and philosophy to illuminate the relationship between humor and math. Though the essence of humor defies analysis, reviewers praised Paulos for his amusing and perceptive attempt. In chapters such as "Self-reference and Paradox," "Humor, Grammar, and Philosophy," and "A Catastrophe Theory Model of Jokes and Humor," the author, according to New York Times Book Review contributor Douglas Hofstadter, "offers a set of metaphors and ways of thinking about humor (and life in general) that, although not new to the mathematically inclined, will be novel and appealing to a wide audience of nonmathematical readers." Hofstadter continued, "[Paulos's] writing is unpretentious, and his approach is unorthodox and fresh."

Paulos also uses an innovative approach to address the problem of mathematical ignorance in Innumeracy. According to the author, innumeracy—the inability to understand basic mathematical concepts—impacts society in a way similar to functional illiteracy. The ability to understand math, however, is often not considered as essential as the ability to read. "I am pained," Paulos remarked in an interview with Time contributor Stefan Kanfer, "at the belief that mathematics is an esoteric discipline with little relation or connection to the 'real' world."

Maintaining in Innumeracy that the nation's math anxiety results from poor education as well as cultural attitudes and misconceptions about the subject, Paulos, as he noted in a New York Times Book Review article, attempts to debunk the idea that "mathematics is … mechanical, the work of low-level technicians who will report to the rest of us anything we absolutely must know." Rather than preach to those afflicted with innumeracy, however, Paulos uses humor and a variety of entertaining examples to illustrate how math and logic can be used in the daily experience of the average person. The reader learns in Innumeracy the statistical chances of being a victim of a terrorist attack as opposed to a car crash, the odds of winning the lottery, the difference between a million and a billion and a trillion, how to spot numerically fallacious arguments, and the probability that two strangers will share an acquaintance. Other calculations appeal to the reader's curiosity, including the rate that hair grows in miles per hour and the number of grains of sand that would fill up the earth.

Serendipitously published soon after several studies trumpeted America's mathematical ignorance, Innumeracy earned high marks for timeliness and became a best-seller. Reviewers found the book a functional yet engaging guide to applied mathematics. In a Chicago Tribune review, Jon Van declared that Paulos "makes numbers, probability and statistics perform like so many trained seals for the reader's entertainment and enlightenment. The big bad wolf of mathematics anxiety is blown away by breezy writing."

Continuing to discuss mathematics in an accessible, inviting fashion, Paulos wrote Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man. Containing seventy brief, alphabetically arranged chapters, the book explores concepts beyond the realm of the basic mathematics examined in Innumeracy. Topics such as game theory, vectors, logarithms, voting systems, chaos, and fractals are deftly explained. "Even the fearsome integral calculus is made downright docile," declared Suplee. Though some reviewers opined that Paulos deals with certain subjects too briefly, Beyond Numeracy was well received. Suplee professed that "Paulos's principal genius lies in the recognition that many … humans are 'unknowing mathophiles' who 'have been thinking math all their lives without realizing it.' For those, for anyone, who ever sat rapt at the austere beauty of a [mathematical] proof and later wondered where the wonder went, it's here."

In A Mathematician Reads the Newspapers Paulos once again reveals that mathematics is all around us, in ways we may not suspect. "Paulos' method is to latch onto various kinds of news items and use them as springboards into small mathematical discussions," explained Scientific American contributor Rudy Rucker. "As Paulos warns in his introduction, he also like to 'digress, amplify, wax curmudgeonly, and muse.'" Like a newspaper, the book does indeed cover a wide spectrum, and Paulos offers mathematical perspectives on political and local news reporting, business and the arts, sports, and even obituaries. Each chapter title is taken from an actual headline, such as "Rodent Population Patterns Difficult to Fathom" or "Computers, Faxes, Copiers Still Rare in Russia," which Paulos uses as a starting point for discussions on the misuse of statistics, confusion about imprecision (such as the difference between statistical averages and actual values), and the many other ways that numbers can be made to lie, or at least mislead.

In a number of chapters, Paulos leaves the realm of pure mathematics to pursue more general failures in logic, such as the "halo effect" that makes us overvalue the opinions of people from prestigious institutions and the "availability bias" that can draw us toward false analogies based on their emotional power. Some of this inevitably gets subjective: Is a professor from Harvard more likely to know his subject than a community college instructor? Is Iraq analogous to Vietnam in any way, or is that a case of availability bias? Some critics felt that Paulos blurred the lines between proof and conjecture. Technology Review contributor Arnold Barnett faulted the book for "incomplete arguments, and statements that are not supported if not intrinsically unsupportable." Others appreciated Paulos' excursions into so many intriguing areas. Reason reviewer Brian Doherty commended "Paulos' quiet good sense and wide-ranging mind." For Doherty, Paulos' book "is simply nifty, larded with clever and informative tidbits."

Paulos crosses boundaries again in Once Upon a Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic of Stories. Paulos' goal is to bridge a longstanding gap. As he explains, "Describing the world may be thought of as an Olympic contest between simplifiers-scientists in general, statisticians in particular-and complicators-humanists in general, storytellers in particular. It is a contest both should win." By looking at the statistical assumptions in certain stories, and the surrounding context of certain statistics, Paulos seeks to show the way to a fuller understanding of reality. The Bible Code, for example, is based on a misconception about how easy it is to find different words in a lengthy document. (And Paulos has fun finding "Bill" and "Monica" in the U.S. Constitution.) At the same time, Paulos believes that "applying probability and statistics is much more a matter of comprehending the situation, of creating informal arguments, and of building comprehensive narratives than of substituting numbers into formulas," as Skeptical Inquirer contributor Mark Durm reported. "Paulos is both an amusing, enchanting raconteur and a mathematician. He draws on both skills in this book," noted Booklist reviewer Patricia Monaghan. A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded, his "insightful and amusing observations on how the truths discovered through mathematics should be applied to our everyday lives will appeal to an audience beyond math and science enthusiasts."

In A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market Paulos puts his money where his math is—and uses his own misfortune to provide a valuable lesson for other investors. Drawing on quantitative economics and a series of mathematical models, Paulos concluded that high-flying telecommunications company WorldCom was the place to invest in 2000. After two years of investing, reinvesting, and luring friends and relatives to invest in WorldCom, Paulos finally sold his stock at a huge loss, just months before the share price collapsed completely in the wake of an SEC investigation. His book "provides an entertaining and instructive account of his plunge into maniacal investing," according to Hal Lux in the Institutional Investor.

In other hands, this might be a simple tale of woe or another cautionary tale about overconfidence and stock market bubbles. With Paulos, of course, it is instead "a first-rate exploration into the math of the market: heuristic numeracy at its best," as a Kirkus Reviews contributor put it. Starting with the simple mathematical concepts behind investing, such as compound interest and price/earnings ratios, Paulos moves on to the more complicated mathematics of wave theory, moving averages, and regression to the mean that underlie, and sometimes confound, sophisticated investment models. "The math he introduces is easily understood … and Paulos gives copious examples," noted Library Journal contributor Lawrence Maxsted. He also takes a look at psychological variables, such as the influence of herd mentality, and other factors that are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. In the end, Paulos finds that the many schemes and techniques available to investors just aren't terribly reliable, a lesson he learned the hard way-but can pass on to readers willing to make a considerably more modest investment of time and money. "Playful and informative, Paulos's book will be appreciated by investors with a sense of humor," concluded a Publishers Weekly reviewer.



Booklist, November 15, 1998, Patricia Monaghan, review of Once Upon a Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic of Stories, p. 553.

Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1989, Jon Van, review of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences.

Congressional Quarterly, August 19, 1995, Ronald D. Elving, "Campaign Data Can Be Calculated Nonsense."

Editor & Publisher, September 2, 1995, Hiley Ward, review of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, p. 17.

Institutional Investor, June, 2003, Hal Lux, review of A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, p. 141.

Journal of Risk and Insurance, December, 2002, James Kallman, review of Once Upon a Number, pp. 614-15.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2003, review of A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, p. 592.

Library Journal, May 1, 2003, Lawrence Maxted, review of A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, p. 131.

Money, May 1, 2003, David Futrelle, "Add Man," (interview with John Allen Paulos), p. 34.

New Statesman & Society, February 9, 1996, Sean French, review of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, p. 36.

New York Times, January 23, 1989, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Innumeracy, p. B2; February 8, 1989, Edwin McDowell, "About Numbers," p. C26.

New York Times Book Review, January 18, 1981, Douglas Hofstadter, review of Mathematics and Humor, p. 26; January 15, 1989, Morris Kline, review of Innumeracy, p. 1; April 21, 1991, Paul Hoffman, review of Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man, p. 21; April 25, 1999, James Alexander, review of Once upon a Number, p. 28; November 2, 2003, Robert Kuttner, review of A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, p. 18.

Omni, April, 1993, Janet Stites, "Running the Numbers," pp. 34-40.

Publishers Weekly, June 2, 1989, Chris Goodrich, "Big Numbers for Innumeracy: Hill & Wang's First Bestseller Heralds a New Direction," pp. 46-48; October 26, 1998, review of Once upon a Number, p. 55; April 7, 2003, review of A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, p. 55.

Reason, December, 1995, Brian Doherty, review of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, p. 36.

Saturday Evening Post, September, 1989, Kay Bartlett, "Are You an Innumerate?," p. 36.

Science Times, June 14, 2003, review of A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, p. 383.

Scientific American, April, 1996, Rudy Rucker, review of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper; February, 1999, Simon Singh, review of Once upon a Number.

Skeptical Inquirer, November, 1999, Mark Durm, review of Once Upon a Number, pp. 55-60.

Teacher Magazine, May/June, 1996, Daniel Venables, review of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper.

Technology Review, February-March, 1996, Arnold Barnett, review of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, pp. 65-66.

Time, January 30, 1989, Stefan Kanfer, "To Conquer Fear of Counting: A New Book Shows How Widely Math Is Misunderstood," p. 66.

Times Literary Supplement, March 20, 1992, Brian Rotman, review of Beyond Numeracy, p. 8.

Washington Post Book World, April 21, 1991, Curt Suplee, review of Beyond Numeracy, p. 3.


Temple University Mathematics Department Web site, (May 26, 2004), John Allen Paulos profile.