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Conned Again, Watson! Cautionary Tales of Logic, Math and Probability (2000)
Colin Bruce
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for young adults and math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors).

To follow-up on his clever popular physics book that explains modern physics using Sherlock Holmes as a guide, Oxford based writer Colin Bruce has written a book that teaches some important mathematical ideas in a similar context. To his credit, I must say that I am impressed and pleased by the topics that Bruce chooses to cover. Unlike the vast majority of writers of popular mathematics, Bruce does not cover the "sexiest" or newest ideas (e.g. fractals, chaos theory, Fermat's last theorem, etc.) but what he sees as the most relevant to most peoples' daily lives.

Most of it seems to come from a subdiscipline called Decision Theory (often viewed as being as much a part of psychology or business as it is mathematics), but his presentation is entirely mathematical. For example, he covers the kinds of mistakes people often make when deciding where to shop, what to bet on, how to manage a business and (that most common of daily activities) where to dig for a buried body when you are only allowed to dig one hole and the crazy boy who knows where it is buried is only allowed to tell you where it is not buried.

Seriously, though, I do recommend this book to people as a really good guide to thinking mathematically about many things we do encounter on a daily basis, especially when our "gut reaction" is something that seems right but upon further investigation turns out to be precisely the wrong thing to do.

But, there is one thing about this book that bugged me to the point that I almost could not read it. Perhaps it is just me (since the author seems to be at least somewhat aware of it and apparently unbothered by it), but I could not take all of the anachronisms. I mean, this book is supposed to take place in England in 1900. As the author acknowledges in the appendix, it is then technically incorrect to have Charles Dodgson appear and get the idea for writing the "Alice" stories, when they were already written (and Dodgson already dead) in that year. Similarly, there is no year in which Marx and Lenin could meet as adults. But, it is not just these intentional (and perhaps forgivable) anachronisms that bother me. It is the fact that every topic of discussion seems more relevant to the late 20th century than the turn or the century. Were there really laws against using pesticide because of run-off and people concerned about the evolution of moths induced by factory smoke in 1900? Were people talking about the health risks of cigarettes and crop circles? Could even the most forward thinking of engineers in 1900 have predicted that the most serious threat to an engine on an airplane would be a collision with a bird?

I guess it shouldn't be too much of a surprise, since his earlier successful book also presented 20th century ideas in an essentially 19th century context, but all of this just makes it hard for me to "get into" the story. Okay, as I said, maybe it's just me. And besides, even I did feel that I learned something from reading the book!

Note: This book was reviewed in the November 2002 issue of the AMS Notices.

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Works Similar to Conned Again, Watson! Cautionary Tales of Logic, Math and Probability
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. L.A. Math: Romance, Crime and Mathematics in the City of Angels by James D. Stein
  2. The Case of the Murdered Mathematician by Julia Barnes / Kathy Ivey
  3. The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj
  4. Pythagorean Crimes by Tefcros Michaelides
  5. NUMB3RS by Nick Falacci / Cheryl Heuton
  6. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
  7. Professor Conundrum Mysteries! by Bill Streifer
  8. Shakespeare Predicted it All by Dietmar Dath
  9. The Ingenious Mr. Spinola by Ernest Bramah
  10. A Mathematical Mystery Tour: Discovering the Truth and Beauty of the Cosmos by A.K. Dewdney
Ratings for Conned Again, Watson! Cautionary Tales of Logic, Math and Probability:
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 (7 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.85/5 (7 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Mystery, Didactic,
MotifSherlock Holmes,
MediumShort Stories,

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May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex

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