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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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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.
"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.
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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. In contrast, pre 20th century mathematical probability was more a disjointed collection of small topics initiated by different individuals with different motivations -- metaphorically, an archipelago not a continent.
Note: The listing as 208 pages may be misleading (the pages are smallish and the typeface large), though the price is still very reasonable.
Most recent customer reviews
This is a short book that intersperses Dr. Devlin's commentary with the letters written by Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat on...Read more