Book Review: The Drunkard’s Walk

Yeah, that’s right. A book about probability theory. And actually, it’s not bad if you can either shrug off or endure a bit of lecturing on basic mathematics and statistics. Author Leonard Mlodinow sets out to review the history of probability, starting with the ancient Greeks and following the field’s evolution and application. Mlodinow has a pretty good style, keeping things relatively low level so that anyone with a high school education in math can probably follow along. He also peppers the narrative with jokes and asides to break up the otherwise less-than-fluffy subject matter. And it works pretty well, though I suspect the lengthy discussion of the normal curve might have lost me if I hadn’t already had all that info drilled into me in graduate school.

My favorite parts of The Drunkard’s Walk were the historical bits dealing with the personalities and biographies of the people who helped define the field. It’s interesting to see how one, for example, labored as a would-be academic for years and years, before turning his burgeoning probability theory to gambling and making more money than he ever dreamed of. Actually, that theme shows up a lot –another section describes how another researcher working in the field went to a casino and used his meticulous study of roulette tables to uncover flaws in the system and make himself fabulously wealthy before they kicked him out.

Where The Drunkard’s Walk falls down (ha!) a bit is in its examination of the practical problems to which probability theory can be applied. That is, why it matters to YOU. The best books on popular science do this really well, and it moves the work from being academic to accessible by anyone looking to be both educated and entertained. Don’t get me wrong, Mlodinow does some of this, but he doesn’t really nail it as well as some others I’ve read. Still, if you’ve got a little bit of grounding in the topic and want to add some context to your knowledge, The Drunkard’s Walk should do that quite nicely.

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