Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 12)

ROBERTS I have some questions about details of the book. What was the hardest part of writing the book? . . . there were no hard parts?

MLODINOW Well, I’m thinking about it and also thinking about how I interpret the word ‘hard.’ Usually ‘hard’ would mean that you’re struggling with it and I’m not sure I exactly struggled with any particular part, in a sense of . . . with all the negative connotations of the word ‘struggle,’ where I’m unsure of victory and battling and becoming exhausted and fear for my life.

I guess the part that comes to mind that I had the most doubts about whether I could get through it was the structure of the book because it weaves together three areas that are historically not that smoothly tied together–probability, statistics and the random processes. Or one united subject, like geometry, that you can see the fairly linear development and here it was more intertwined strands. I did have some trouble at first seeing the segue both in concept and tone of the book, from probability to statistics and at the end when I’m talking more about random processes and very specifically about peoples’ lives. To make that a smooth transition so it doesn’t seem like two books, a book on the concepts and another book on peoples’ lives. There was a lot about peoples’ lives in the earlier parts, too, but in the latter parts of the book, I had less and less actual mathematical concepts and almost solely psychology and sociology and discussion of peoples’ lives. Figuring out exactly how to do that–I do remember struggling with that part–I guess that was the hardest part, I would say.

One other difficult thing was that I went back–when I was talking about the Central Limit Theorem and the Law of Large Numbers–I went back and looked at the very specific work that was done by DeMoivre, Laplace, Gauss etc.  That was difficult because what they actually did is not in the form that is often attributed to them today.  I went back and tried to disentangle what they actually showed and tried to figure out what they were thinking, rather than just talking about the modern form of the theorem in textbooks and attributing it to them.

ROBERTS I see.

MLODINOW That took a lot of effort to figure out. I actually went back and found some of the original calculations.

ROBERTS In a library somewhere? In a manuscript?

MLODINOW They’re in academic books–there are several academic books, so I found some academic books (academic press books, I mean) that presented their actual calculations. I went through those in order to figure out and explain the differences between what they actually did and what the offshoot of their work looks like today.

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