The Jungles of Randomness: A Mathematical Safari. Ivars Peterson. Wiley.

The Jungles of Randomness: A Mathematical Safari Book Cover The Jungles of Randomness: A Mathematical Safari
Ivars Peterson
October 3, 1997

Join acclaimed science writer Ivars Petersen on an adventurous trek through an exotic world of weird dice, fractal drums, firefly rhythms and chaotic amusement park rides, as he explores the wilds of randomness. A tricky, intriguing, even elusive concept, randomness affects our lives in an astonishing range of ways – from the fun and games we play and the noise that spoils the music we hear, to the ways viruses grow and atoms combine. Hidden rules and secret patterns lurk within apparently random events and chance encounters.

How likely is it that a coin will land heads up to ten times in a row? How often might you meet a stranger at a party who shares your birthday? Are there really ways to win at roulette or beat a slot machine? How does the gait of a horse differ from that of a cockroach? Peterson uncovers the answers to a rich array of such tantalizing questions, revealing the surprising, ambiguous boundaries between order and chaos.

An eye-opening discovery awaits at every turn, from the simple secret behind winning a game of Chutes and Ladders, to why any group of six people must include at least three acquaintances or three strangers, and why you can scratch a compact disc and still get flawless sound. We learn how a game of darts can provide a remarkably good estimate of the value of pi,  how pacemaker cells in the heart begin to beat in synchrony, and how carefully designed chaos translates into the thrilling ride of Tilt-a-Whirl.

Along the way we also meet a host of characters, both charming and eccentric, who either made striking discoveries about randomness or were profoundly affected by it. There’s the case of Williard Longcor, a man gripped with a passion for throwing dice, who meticulously records the outcomes of millions of tosses and helps correct the theory of the distribution of runs. And there’s the tragic case of the brilliant novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky who became addicted to the random spin of the roulette wheel. The “wandering mathematician” Paul Erdos drops in with his famous greeting “my brain is open,” and the visionary architect Buckminster Fuller remarks on the similarities between his geodesic domes and the structure of viruses.

In Peterson’s words, “Mathematics encompasses the joy of solving puzzles, the exhilaration of subduing stubborn problems, the thrill of discerning patterns and making sense of apparent nonsense, and the immense satisfaction of nailing down an eternal truth.” The Jungles of Randomness offers a delightful journey into the exciting world of mathematical discovery and imparts a rare vision of the fundamental playfulness of mathematics in our lives.

Ivars Peterson is one of today’s most popular math authors. He is the mathematics and physics editor of Science News, and the author of four previous books, including the bestselling The Mathematical Tourist, as well as Islands of Truth, Newton’s Clock, and Fatal Defect. He received the award for “exceptional skill in communicating mathematics to the general audience” in 1991 from the  Joint Policy Board for Mathematics.