James D. Stein, "The Fate of Schrodinger's Cat: Using Math and Computers to Explore the Counterintuitive" (World Scientific, 2020)


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Math has a complicated relationship with the counterintuitive: Rigorous logic, calculation, and simulation can both help us wrap our minds around phenomena that defy our intuition, and thrust upon us whole new worlds of counterintuitive results. In his new book, Jim Stein introduces readers to several unexpected and sometimes astonishing examples, while demanding a minimal mathematical background.

The Fate of Schrodinger's Cat: Using Math and Computers to Explore the Counterintuitive (World Scientific, 2020) takes the reader along a journey in three segments. The first, through only by-hand calculations, builds up to a variation on Schrödinger's notorious thought experiment in which an observer can use an unrelated random process to predict the outcome of a 50/50 trial more than half the time. The kernel of this setup is Blackwell's Bet, a simple yet extraordinary illustration of what Stein calls "probabilistic entanglement".

The second section uses computer simulation to get a handle on several paradoxical episodes in the world of sports: For my favorite example, how is it that an NFL season can at the same moment be exceptional both for the number of unbeaten teams and for the number of underperforming ones? Section III brings both computational approaches together to investigate perhaps the most argued-over quantitative question since Monty Hall: Is there a "hot hand"?

What makes this book of popular mathematics exceptional is its openness: Stein's explorations can be followed with only very basic (or, ahem, BASIC) knowledge of arithmetic, probability, algebra, and programming. Moreover, they can be furthered: Readers are more often left not with final answers but with many ways to continue on their own.

James D. Stein completed a BA in mathematics at Yale in 1962 and a PhD in mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1967. He taught mathematics for 7 years at the University of California Los Angeles and for 35 years at California State University, Long Beach. His research has focused on Banach spaces and fixed-point theory, and he has written 10 mathematics and science books for the general public. He currently teaches one course per semester at El Camino Community College and is interested in probability theory and its applications to prediction.

Cory Brunson is a Research Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida. His research focuses on geometric and topological approaches to the analysis of medical and healthcare data. He welcomes book suggestions, listener feedback, and transparent supply chains.

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