|In investigating a bizarre case of missing -- and apparently resurrected bodies -- an investigator at Scotland Yard consults mystics, philosophers, and (most significantly to the book as well as to this review) a statistician. As the statistician explains, only he is able to really say anything worthwhile about this, or anything else:
|(quoted from The Investigation)|
Our faces and our fates are shaped by statistics -- we human beings are the
resultant of Brownian motion -- incomplete sketches, randomly outlined
projections. Perfection, fullness, excellence are all rare exceptions --
they occur only because there is such an excess, so unimaginably much of
everything! The daily commonplace is automatically regulated by the
world's vastness, its infinite variety; because of it what we see as gaps
and breaches complement each other; the mind, for its own
self-preservation, finds and integrates scattered fragments. Using
religion and philosophy as the cement, we perpetually collect and assemble
all the garbage comprised by statistics in order to make sense out of
things, to make everything respond in one unified voice like a bell chiming
to our glory. But i's only soup...The mathematical order of the universe
is our answer to the pyramids of chaos. On every side of us we see bits of
life that are completely beyond our understanding -- we label them unusual,
but we really don't want to acknowledge them. the only thing that really
exists is statistics. The intelligent person is the statistical person.
Wil a child be beautiful or ugly? Will he enjoy music? Will he get
cancer? It's all decided by a throw of the dice. At the very moment of
our conception -- statistics!
[and from elsewhere]
Only my field -- statistics -- can give immediate results. The same applies in the study of cancer. So far as this case is concerned, there will probably be quite a few conflicting theories in time, and I imagine that the ones the public finds most appealing will help to build up the circulation of the more sensational newspapers. This phenomenon will be connected with flying saucers, with astrology, with God only knows what. But all that is none of my business.
From his point of view, understanding the statistics of the resurrections is all that is important, and he does that relatively early in the book:
|(quoted from The Investigation)|
"If you want me to," Sciss said in a shrill voice, "I will explain my calculations later on. Right now I shall only give you the results. the incidents occurred in a particular sequence: the more recently each incident took place, the farther it is located from the center -- that is, from the site of the first disappearance. In addition, there is another significant item: the time between the respective incidents, counting form the first one, gets longer and longer, although not as if they were in proportion to each other in some specific ratio. But if temperature is also taken into account, it becomes evident that there is a certain regularity. More specifically, the product obtained by multiplying the time elapsed between any two incidents, and the distance separating any two consecutive disappearing-body sites from the center, when multiplied by the differential between the prevailing temperatures at both sites...
"This gives us," Sciss continued after a moment, " a constant of five to nine centimeters per second and degree. [...] If we take a mean of seven centimeters as the true quantity of the constant and then do certain calculations, which I have already completed, we get a rather curious result..."
To what extent is such a mathematical correspondence a satisfactory explanation? To what extent do we tolerate such explanations in science? These are the questions that this book addresses in the case of a particularly unusual example.
"Of course, the author has to exaggerate a
little, to make his work fun to read. Obviously, the world isn't totally
random-- it has plenty of very predictable and reliable patterns. But
that's the main mystery of life (for me, anyway)-- with the infinity of
things going on in the universe, how is it possible for any part of it to
be simple and predictable? Why doesn't the complexity spread to ALL parts
of the universe? (In which case, there wouldn't be any safe little corners
for creatures like us to live."
As an English Literature/Russian Language double major, I was first introduced to this novel as a sophomore in undergrad. The rest of my class hated this book. No one could seem to make sense of it ... I fell in love with it, though, precisely because of its use of Math and its demonstration of how humans have created and used statistics to try to define the improbable ... The story shows clearly how backwards this approach to life truly is.The use of Brownian Motion to describe human behavior in the midst of all this predetermined statistical structure is pure genius, in my mind. I could go on and on ...