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The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern Paperback – March 23, 2010


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Trade Paper Edition edition (March 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465018963
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465018963
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,036,916 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Prior to the development of statistics in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even rationalists were convinced that no human could speculate on the future. Devlin, NPR's "Math Guy" and the author of numerous books on the subject, shows us how that belief was transformed through the 1654 correspondence between mathematicians Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat. Devlin uses the critical letter from Pascal to Fermat in which he discusses "the problem of points"-that is, how to determine the probable outcome of a game of chance-as a framework for a history of probability theory and risk management, fields which now dominate our social, political and financial lives. Devlin interweaves the specific issues discussed in that famous letter with the work of other mathematicians, like the London businessman John Graunt, whose ingenious, groundbreaking work analyzing London parish death records helped predict a breakout of bubonic plague and essentially founded the science of epidemiology. Devlin also introduces the remarkable Bernoulli family, eight of whom were distinguished mathematicians, and the Reverend Thomas Bayes, whose formula has enabled the calculation of risk in a variety of fields. This informative book is a lively, quick read for anyone who wonders about the science of predicting what's next and how deeply it affects our lives.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"PublishersWeekly.com"
"This informative book is a lively, quick read for anyone who wonders about the science of predicting what's next and how deeply it affects our lives."


"New Scientist"
"This breezy book shows why probability theory, though not Pascal and Fermat's last, was undoubtedly their most important theorem."


"Washington Times"
"Mr. Devlin shares the great mathematicians' correspondence, walks readers through critical mathematical problems and contextualizes it all in a lively narrative. The book is a refreshing testimony to the rewards of thinking rationally about how future events might unfold.... [A] rewarding read.... Mr. Devlin does a remarkable job of showing just how much derived from the history-changing Pascal-Fermat correspondence."


"MAA Online"
"This book is not only about mathematics. It is also a tale of how mathematics, and science in general, is really done.... Very well written and accessible to everyone.... This is highly recommended reading.... [It] should find a place in every mathematician's library."


"Booklist"
"Devlin depicts Fermat as leading Pascal toward correct understanding of probability's underlying logic, through quotation of the entire letter and a characteristically clear explanation of the logic of probability with which Pascal struggled. A rewarding account for math buffs."


David Berlinski, author of "The Devil's Delusion" and "A Tour of the Calculus"
"I've been a faithful reader of Keith Devlin's work for a long time, and this is the best thing I've seen from his pen. It combines a lightness of touch, an understanding of the sources, an absence of anysort of intrusive self, and a sensitive and error-free presentation of the mathematics."


William Dunham, author of "The Calculus Gallery" and "Journey Through Genius"
"Keith Devlin's delightful little book traces the origins of probability theory and introduces the mathematicians--from Pascal and Fermat to Bernoulli and de Moivre--who created it."


Amir Aczel, author of "Fermat's Last Theorem" and "Chance"
"In this enchanting romp through the early history of probability theory, Devlin does a great job explaining the role probability plays in modern life, and shows how probabilistic reasoning, which we almost take for granted today, was a product of the minds of brilliant mathematicians almost four centuries ago."


"Entertainment Weekly"
"Surprisingly engaging." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


More About the Author

Dr. Keith Devlin is a mathematician at Stanford University in California. He is a co-founder and Executive Director of the university's H-STAR institute, a co-founder of the Stanford Media X research network, and a Senior Researcher at CSLI. He has written 31 books and over 80 published research articles. His books have been awarded the Pythagoras Prize and the Peano Prize, and his writing has earned him the Carl Sagan Award, and the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics Communications Award. In 2003, he was recognized by the California State Assembly for his "innovative work and longtime service in the field of mathematics and its relation to logic and linguistics." He is "the Math Guy" on National Public Radio. (Archived at http://www.stanford.edu/~kdevlin/MathGuy.html.)

He is a World Economic Forum Fellow and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His current research is focused on the use of different media to teach and communicate mathematics to diverse audiences. He also works on the design of information/reasoning systems for intelligence analysis. Other research interests include: theory of information, models of reasoning, applications of mathematical techniques in the study of communication, and mathematical cognition.

He writes a monthly column for the Mathematical Association of America, "Devlin's Angle": http://www.maa.org/devlin/devangle.html

Customer Reviews

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Nevertheless, this book will likely be savored the most by math and science buffs.
G. Poirier
The book, itself, is an engaging tale of correspondence between two of history's great mathematical minds, Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal.
Reading Thusly
Having a detailed yet easy to read account of this subject is a very welcome addition to the literature.
David J. Aldous

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 39 people found the following review helpful By David J. Aldous on September 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Many textbooks on mathematical probability mention as a brief aside the correspondence between Pascal and Fermat on the subject of settling fairly a wager on an unfinished game. And many of the popular science style books on probability which have substantial historical components (amongst my favorites, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk and Chances Are: Adventures in Probability) devote a few pages to this topic. The first half of Devlin's book, whose style positions it slightly more toward the "serious" end of the popular science spectrum, presents and discusses the correspondence, accompanied by background about the lives of the two principals and their contemporaries. Having a detailed yet easy to read account of this subject is a very welcome addition to the literature.

I'm less enthusiastic about the second half, consisting of briefer accounts of the contributions of people such as Graunt, the Bernoullis, Gauss, Bayes and fast forwarding to DNA testimony and Black-Scholes. Much of this material is similar in spirit to that in existing books (such as the two mentioned above) which paint a broader and richer historical picture. Moreover the implication that there's some kind of meaningful direct line from Pascal-Fermat to the present mathematical understanding of probability, risk etc seems to me just misleading. In core areas of mathematics (geometry, algebra, calculus ..) there was a continuous historical development, in that people consciously learned and built upon what was known before.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Many years ago, I can remember that the weatherman on television would give us a forecast for the next day, and he'd make his blunt prediction that it was going to rain or shine. That was it; you had his prediction, and he turned out either to be wrong or right. A couple of decades ago, this changed, and the weatherman started giving us percentage chances of rain. If he says there is a ninety percent chance of rain, you make your decision accordingly about whether to take the umbrella, and if it doesn't rain, the weatherman wasn't wrong; it was just that other ten percent chance creeping through. We take predictions about the weather, and stocks, and countless other things for granted, but that we can predict the future and take such predictions seriously represents a philosophical shift based on pure and applied mathematics. Keith Devlin wants us non-mathematicians to understand how important this shift was, and how it got started from a letter from one mathematician to another written on 24 August 1654. In _The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter That Made the World Modern_ (Basic Books), Devlin has given a quick history of the beginning of probability theory, and more important, has shown how the mathematics was done and how it really did change everyone's outlook on the way the world works. Devlin, well known as "The Math Guy" on National Public Radio who tries to make complicated mathematical ideas understandable for the rest of us, does much the same thing here, making complicated and sometimes counterintuitive mathematical themes understandable, and even more important, relevant.Read more ›
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By G. Poirier on October 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In this most engaging book, the author focuses on correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat - two great mathematicians of the seventeenth century. The subject of this correspondence deals with a particular problem in gambling. The resolution of this problem, as detailed in this exchange between these two geniuses, is viewed by mathematicians as the birth of probability theory as we know it today. As another reviewer as already pointed out, the author's analysis of this exchange, one letter in particular, occupies the better part of about half the book. The rest involves subsequent developments in this field due to other great luminaries in mathematics, as well as resulting applications in everyday life. Throughout the book, the author has included historical/biographical snippets which add an important human element to what could otherwise be viewed by some as a rather dry subject. I have read other books by this author, and I find this one to be clearly his best thus far. The writing style is clear, friendly, authoritative, quite engaging and accessible to a wide audience. Nevertheless, this book will likely be savored the most by math and science buffs.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By David Milliern on October 6, 2013
Format: Paperback
This book was by no means exciting, but it was moderately interesting. I think this is one in which the reader will have to be sufficiently interested in reading beforehand, because I don't think it is bound to inspire anyone to new levels of interest. I am a little torn between whether this book should have been an article in a journal, rather than being a book. The print size is such that it would have made for a long article, but I guess the accessibility of such a book is a positive, given that there are bound to be a number of laypeople interested in the founding of probability.

The writing is okay, the research is pretty well done, and so I would recommend this book to anyone seeking the history surrounding this mathematical subdiscipline's formation. This history finds its setting in a communication (and critical letter) between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat. Therefore, anyone also interested in the lives and thought of these thinkers may also be interested.

My single point of criticize is that the history is presented in a vacuum, discussing some preceding issues that exist before Pascal and Fermat deal with the "unfinished game," however, no significant social context was established, which would have inexorably driven the discussion as much as the preceding history of probability. I think any history of science and mathematics is simply incomplete without this, and probably misleading, as I have found in other cases. Nonetheless, this is a valuable book.
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