a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Improbable (2005)
Adam Fawer
Highly Rated!

A probability expert suffering from epilepsy (with hints of schizophrenia) is in over his head with gambling debts to the Russian mob and a beautiful, renegade CIA agent before discovering that he has the ability to predict the future. A running subplot is the mathematical aspects of determinism (i.e. Laplace's famous claim that the future can be predicted precisely by anyone with sufficient ability to calculate and sufficient information). To most mathematicians, the downfall of Laplace's Demon was the realization that the "sufficient information" necessary to predict the future is impossible to obtain in practice due to the sensitive dependence that is a hallmark of chaos theory. However, this book seems to tie it into the philosophical question of "free will" (which I have put in quotes because I don't think anyone has ever really defined what it means), a Jungian sort of common unconsciousnesss, and the foundational questions of quantum mechanics (though the author's understanding of modern physics seems to be rather superficial and overly influenced by metaphysical hype).

I like the scenes showing the protagonist as a math professor. The lectures he gives are interesting and creative, though not always 100% accurate. (For instance, his discussion of "minimizing error" gives the impression that the expected value is the one which occurs most often. In fact, the expected value may not be a possible outcome at all. Rather, it is the number for which the differences between it and the outcomes is minimized. It fits in well with what he was trying to say...he just didn't say it right.)

I also thought the idea -- that someone connected to all of humanity's unconscious thought for all time could use the information to predict the future to some high degree of certainty -- was interesting and made for a fun book. However, I'm not sure it makes sense if you think about it. It is not clear how he sometimes knows things that no person knows (like the order of cards in a shuffled deck) if his source of information is this common human unconsciousness. Moreover, Fawer ends up with some rather strange blend of the determinism of Laplace and the popular notion of "free will". I mean, the whole point of Laplace is that if things are deterministic then all that you need is enough information and processing power to predict the future. But, once we're supposed to believe that human decision is somehow non-deterministic, I would think the whole thing would fall apart and the ability to do anything like that would be lost.

I've already complained about Fawer's physics. Everything from his quantum mechanics (in which he uses the popular but inaccurate statement that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is the statement that things change when you observe them) to his special relativity (no, E=MC^2 does not explain why you get thrown back in your seat when your car accelerates -- it pretty much avoids dealing with acceleration at all) is off. But his biology is perhaps even worse. Both of his claims regarding evolution (that it is necessarily non-deterministic and that it cannot explain instinctive behavior) are ridiculous.

Fortunately, these little annoyances to not spoil the book. It is an engrossing thriller with some clever ideas and quite a bit of nice mathematics thrown in as well. The book's official website also has a Flash game that you can play which quizes you on and teaches you some basic probability!

Contributed by kenn

Improbable by Adam Fawer is a great read. It's all fiction, leaning to SF but a good story where probability is core to the lead characters success. If you like: Rucker, Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling, Morgan (Altered Carbon) and even Ball and Pickover you should like this book. It's a quick, fun read.

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Works Similar to Improbable
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Spoilers by Desmond Bagley
  2. Only Say the Word by Niall Williams
  3. Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer
  4. Case of Lies by Perri O\'Shaughnessy
  5. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons
  6. The Lure by Bill Napier
  7. God Doesn't Shoot Craps by Richard Armstrong
  8. She is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
  9. The Blind Geometer by Kim Stanley Robinson
  10. Habitus by James Flint
Ratings for Improbable:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (4 votes)

GenreScience Fiction, Adventure/Espionage,
MotifMental Illness, Academia, Real Mathematicians, Future Prediction through Math, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful,
TopicMathematical Physics, Chaos/Fractals, Probability/Statistics,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)