The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern

Overview

In the early seventeenth century, the outcome of something as simple as a dice roll was consigned to the realm of unknowable chance. Mathematicians largely agreed that it was impossible to predict the probability of an occurrence. Then, in 1654, Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat exchanged a series of letters in which they developed a method to calculate risk. That method is what is now known as probability theory-a concept that allows us to think rationally about decisions and events. In The Unfinished Game, ...

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The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern

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Overview

In the early seventeenth century, the outcome of something as simple as a dice roll was consigned to the realm of unknowable chance. Mathematicians largely agreed that it was impossible to predict the probability of an occurrence. Then, in 1654, Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat exchanged a series of letters in which they developed a method to calculate risk. That method is what is now known as probability theory-a concept that allows us to think rationally about decisions and events. In The Unfinished Game, Keith Devlin masterfully chronicles Pascal and Fermat's mathematical breakthrough, connecting a centuries-old discovery with its remarkable impact on the modern world.

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Editorial Reviews

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In 1654, if we are to believe scientist/NPR commentator Keith Devlin, Blaise Pascal wrote Pierre de Fermat a letter that helped create the modern world that we inhabit. In retrospect, the issue at hand in the missive hardly seems earthshaking. Pascal was attempting to offer a solution for the "unfinished game" problem: How would dice players equitably divide a pot if the game was finished prematurely? But Pascal's contention that it was possible to predict a conclusion by calculating mathematical outcomes gave "predictability" its first toehold, which number crunchers have been leveraging ever since.
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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465018963
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/23/2010
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 782,763
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Keith  Devlin

Keith Devlin is a Senior Researcher and Executive Director at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information, a Consulting Professor in the Department of Mathematics, and a co-founder of the Stanford Media X research network. National Public Radio’s “Math Guy,” he is the author of over twenty-five books. He lives in Stanford, California.

Biography

Odds are, John Grisham doesn’t get interview questions like this: "If you could meet any mathematician, who would it be?"

But author Keith Devlin does, this time from Discover magazine as part of a January 2001 article coinciding with the publication of his book The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip. His answer may go a long way toward explaining why he has managed to make the world of numbers not only understandable but also enjoyable to a segment of the population that can’t balance a checkbook without a net -- or backup from MIT.

“Isaac Newton,” Devlin told the inquiring minds at Discover. “He was a quarrelsome, egotistical person, but he also invented calculus. He did it, by the way, when he was a student at Cambridge. The Great Plague was going on, so the university was closed, and young Newton found himself without studies to do. Most 20-year-olds would think, ‘Whoopee! I’ll just have a good time.’ Newton went home and invented calculus.”

It is this same kind of passion for mathematics that has enabled Devlin, now the executive director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University, to persuade readers that arithmetic, geometry and calculus can be a bracing addition to the stack on the bedside table. In The Math Gene, he explains the “innate sense of number” that lives inside the human mind and how the development of mathematical thinking is closely bound to the development of language. In Goodbye, Descartes: The End of Logic and the Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind, he argues against the possibility of artificial intelligence, saying that computers are simply logic machines that cannot replicate the rational thought and communication that are part of human smarts. In his newest book, The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time, he explains a historic competition announced by a Cambridge, Massachusetts foundation in 2000: Anyone who could solve any one of seven of the most perplexing math problems of the current age would win $1 million.

In a 1999 review, the Economist noted that “Devlin succeeds both in giving us a glimpse of the internal beauty of the subject and in demonstrating its usefulness in the external world. The Language of Mathematics is lucidly written and richly illustrated, and remains accessible and enthusiastic throughout.”

On NPR’s Weekend Edition, where he has become a regular guest, Devlin is referred to simply as “The Math Guy,” or as host Scott Simon once put it “our white knight of the world of mathematics.”

And, going back to that provocative subtitle in The Math Gene, just how is math like gossip? “Mathematicians deal with a collection of objects -- numbers, triangles, groups, fields -- and ask questions like: ‘What is the relationship between Objects X and Y?. If X does this to Y, what will Y do back to X?’” he told Discover. “It's got plot, it's got characters, it's got relationships between them, and it's got life and emotion and passion and love and hate, a bit of everything you can find in a soap opera. On the other hand, a soap opera isn't going to get you to the moon and back. Mathematics can.”

Just don’t forget to carry the 1.

Good To Know

Devlin was the coauthor of the television special A Mathematical Mystery Tour, broadcast as part of the Nova series in 1984.

He once offered as proof of the human brain’s intuitive math skills the ability to judge speed and distance while driving and the ability to add up bowling scores.

Devlin once managed to explain the mathematical difference between a knot and a tangle to National Public Radio’s listeners.

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    1. Hometown:
      Palo Alto, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 16, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Hull, England
    1. Education:
      B.S., King's College, London, 1968; Ph.D., University of Bristol, 1971

Table of Contents

Note to the Reader vii

Preface ix

1 Monday, August 24, 1654 1

2 A Problem Worthy of Great Minds 13

3 On the Shoulders of a Giant 31

4 A Man of Slight Build 49

5 The Great Amateur 65

6 Terrible Confusions 73

7 Out of the Gaming Room 85

8 Into the Everyday World 105

9 The Chance of Your Life 117

10 The Measure of Our Ignorance 145

The Key Letter from Pascal to Fermat 171

Index 183

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