Review: The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread - and Why They Stop



The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread - and Why They Stop
by Adam Kucharski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Adam Kucharski is a mathematician and epidemiologist, and Associate Professor for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  His book The Rules of Contagion delves into the mathematical modelling being done to understand contagion in a broader sense than just the epidemiological one - looking across finance, online viruses and memes, gun violence and other areas of life where “things” grow and recede.

Kucharski definitely has a way with words which helps when you’re writing a book meant for a broad audience on the topic of mathematical modelling.  He’s also someone who’s positioned to understand and convey these topics - being a professor whose background includes work for financial firms, doing analysis on the Ebola virus spread, and currently assisting the UK authorities in modelling the coronavirus.  The book was published in the US in July of 2020 as the first wave of coronavirus was peaking here (and I think in the March 2020 timeframe in the UK).

I found much of this book very interesting and think Kucharski did a great job carrying us through some of the background around mathematical understanding of disease spread and the “theory of happenings”, and then how those tools came to be useful in the financial and online worlds. But as the book went on I do think that some of the additional examples became repetitive. The book ends with what I think is an acknowledgement that Kucharski and his fellow mathematical modellers are still early in understanding how these modelling tools can be of further use - with a final sentence about looking back to see how mathematical models were wrong in predicting past outbreak patterns, so we can improve as we move forward.

If you have an interest in math (or maths if you're British) or the history of math, or if you’ve wondered how epidemiologists came up with models for the impact of COVID then you will like this book.  Kucharski’s writing style reminds me of Michael Lewis, so if you are a fan of Lewis’ books The Fifth Risk, The Big Short or Flash Boys I also think you’ll find this book interesting. 

I read the audiobook, narrated by UK actor and book narrator Joe Jameson, whose voice is easy to listen to and whose narration helped bring out the author’s style.

The Rules of Contagion links

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