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

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 wrote to Pierre de Fermat explaining that he had discovered how to calculate risk. The two collaborated to…  See more details below

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 wrote to Pierre de Fermat explaining that he had discovered how to calculate risk. The two collaborated to develop 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.

Editorial Reviews

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786726325
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
10/20/2008
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
File size:
335 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

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

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