A Numerate Life

A Mathematician Explores the Vagarities of Life, His Own and Probably Yours

Interviewed by James Stein for the New Books Network A Numerate Life is simultaneously a charming memoir and a highly entertaining venture into mathematics, literature, and philosophy. The subtitle of the book is "A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours". You'll be a little skeptical about that subtitle before you read the book, but when you finish it, you'll realize the subtitle nails it — he's talking, not just about himself, but about you. A fascinating read.

Dilip D'Souza's beautiful and perceptive review of A Numerate Life Everything, and I mean everything, is fair game for Paulos and his lens. And that suggests to me the great worth of this book. Paulos makes the case that thinking mathematically is not really a matter of numbers that run through your head constantly. Instead, it is the straightforward—but perhaps uncommon—idea of approaching life with reason, sense, logic and—always—a dose of scepticism. This is a fine way to cut through the fluff, to see past the snake-oil salesmen, sure. But it is also a fine way to live.

Publishers Weekly review: In this fluid and varied memoir, Paulos A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and Innumeracy, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, calls into question the accuracy of the stories people craft about others’ lives and their own. From a mathematical standpoint, he tackles subjects such as the deceptiveness of the concept of normal, the nuances that exist within one’s sense of self, and the inevitability of encountering coincidences. Delving into psychology, philosophy, statistics, and logic, Paulos reveals the far-reaching applications of mathematical thought in people’s lives as well as how they record and remember past events. Rather than adopting the pointed structure of a persuasive essay, Paulos chases down tangents and relates his own experiences, with nostalgia. The organic structure, shaped and strengthened by mathematics, paradoxically makes for a smooth yet convoluted read. Paulos skillfully mixes biography with an analysis of the accuracy (or rather inaccuracy) of biographies as a whole without sabotaging or contradicting either standpoint. By calling its own form into question, Paulos’s memoir offers an honest look into the author’s life and mind, going beyond the specifics of the math to ponder larger questions of how people perceive themselves and their lives.

European Mathematical Society He (Paulos)is philosophical, charming, and funny in a gentle way. I don't know if all the mathematical puns will be understood by non-mathematicians, but for mathematicians, it is a wonderful and playful (self-)reflection on mathematicians, their mathematics,... and their biographers.

The Bush Presidency Was My Fault, in Salon, an excerpt from the book

Another insightful review of A Numerate Life

Fun interview with Paul Harris on paulharrisonline.blogspot.com

A Numerate Life: Using Math to Tease Out ‘Truth’ in Memoir Writing, review in Signature Reads

Blogging Heads TV interview with Glen Whitney of the Museum of math

Radio Times interview on WHYY (NPR) with Marty Moss-Coane

Table of Contents of A Numerate Life

Consensus: "Original, creative, insightful, and funny"

("Paulos en estado puro" from Review of the Spanish translation, entitled La vida es matematica)


"His mathematics is clever and entertaining, his instinct for mathematical trouble spots is undiminished, and his observations of human nature are often arrestingly accurate. I suppose, toward the end of a long career aimed at bringing quantitative literacy to the masses, a person might become a bit frustrated by the slow pace of progress. Perhaps this book is in some sense an expression of that frustration. The level of numeracy in the general population today is not measurably improved from 1988, when Innumeracy was first published. However, the change in awareness of numeracy as a concern in our society is marked, and the resulting changes in curriculum are significant. Paulos’s work has been instrumental in bringing about those changes, and his idiosyncratic “antimemoir” is an appropriate epilogue to that work."

— Kira Hamman — Numeracy, January 2018

"There’s nothing more enlightening than a view of life’s nuances as seen through the lens of a mathematician. Especially when that mathematician is John Allen Paulos, a brilliant educator who persistently empowers the reader to think in ways that render transparent much of what is opaque in the world around us."

— Neil deGrasse Tyson — Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History

(Bonus: A Twitter math "war" between Neil deGrasse Tyson & John Allen Paulos)

"A Numerate Life is the engaging history of a mathematical mind. As always, Paulos displays his genius for making the abstract and abstruse entirely intuitive."

— Sylvia Nasar — Author of A Beautiful Mind

"A quirky and surprisingly poignant book about the struggle to make sense of one’s own life story. With the help of logic and statistical reasoning, Paulos shines a light on the paradoxes and delusions that so often bedevil our remembrance of things past."

— Steven Strogatz — Professor of mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of x

"A wonderful book. Paulos’s life is a rich tapestry embroidered with mathematical gems."

— Mario Livio — Astrophysicist and author of Brilliant Blunders

"Paulos surprises us once again. . . . A thought-provoking, path-breaking ‘meta-memoir"

— Doron Zeilberger — Professor of mathematics, Rutgers University, and winner of the Leroy P. Steele Prize and the Euler Medal