Who's in Control Here?

Reviewed by Christopher Shea
Sunday, June 29, 2008


How Randomness Rules Our Lives

By Leonard Mlodinow | Pantheon. 252 pp. $24.95


Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, And Happiness

By Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Yale Univ. 293 pp. $26

Leonard Mlodinow has had, to speak informally, a pretty random career: He earned a PhD in physics from Berkeley, wrote for "MacGyver" and "Star Trek" and has now settled down as a science popularizer.

A far more sober instance of randomness, however, underpins his new book, The Drunkard's Walk. And it's not hard to see it as a sort of Rosebud, explaining why the author finds unpredictability so compelling. During World War II in the Nazi death-camp Buchenwald, his father and other starving inmates had been told they'd be killed one-by-one until someone confessed to stealing some bread that had gone missing. Upon confessing, Mlodinow's guilty father was not executed, as expected, but promoted to serve as the chef's assistant. A different capricious decision then, and the author Leonard Mlodinow would not exist today.

It's been said that what divides liberals and conservatives is the degree to which each thinks luck plays a role in where one ends up in life. For Mlodinow, "There but for the grace of God" is a mathematical (if not theological) truth. In A Drunkard's Walk, which takes its title from scientific slang for a purely random succession of events, Mlodinow argues that it is quintessentially human to stamp the results of largely arbitrary processes as, in retrospect, inevitable.

Shifting from his own family's encounters with fate, for example, he notes that it is hard to imagine a world without Harry Potter, yet publishers rejected J.K. Rowling's manuscript nine times before someone finally said yes. There's a self-helpish lesson here: Whether we succeed in life is partly out of our hands -- think of the other worthy authors whose manuscripts languish in desk drawers -- but by persisting we offer lightning more chances to strike.

Sandwiched in this book between a morally freighted opening and conclusion is a primer on the science of probability. "Probability is the very guide of life," Cicero wrote. If so, most of us are mapless. We put our money in the hands of moneymen with the best records over the past (say) five years, ignoring research that demonstrates that these big-swinging stockpickers are as likely as their peers to wind up at the bottom of the pile over the next five-year period.

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