From the author of Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?, a fascinating look at how an equation that foretells the future is transforming everything we know about life, business, and the universe.
In the 18th century, the British minister and mathematician Thomas Bayes devised a theorem that allowed him to assign probabilities to events that had never happened before. It languished in obscurity for centuries until computers came along and made it easy to crunch the numbers. Now, as the foundation of big data, Bayes' formula has become a linchpin of the digital economy.
But here's where things get really interesting: Bayes' theorem can also be used to lay odds on the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence; on whether we live in a Matrix-like counterfeit of reality; on the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum theory being correct; and on the biggest question of all: how long will humanity survive?
The Doomsday Calculation tells how Silicon Valley's profitable formula became a controversial pivot of contemporary thought. Drawing on interviews with thought leaders around the globe, it's the story of a group of intellectual mavericks who are challenging what we thought we knew about our place in the universe. The Doomsday Calculation is compelling reading for anyone interested in our culture and its future.
Poundstone (How to Predict the Unpredictable), who studied physics at MIT, provides an intriguing, if less than revelatory, look at Bayes' theorem as a useful way of predicting the probability of future events. Poundstone explains the theorem, the creation of 18th-century mathematician and clergyman Thomas Bayes, as a way of "assigning a probability to something that has never happened" and applies it to a host of questions, ranging from the mundane (how long will one's relationships last?) to the cosmic (are there other universes?) and the existential (are humans inhabitants of another civilization's digital world?). He also applies it to his central question: when will civilization end? His litany of ways the world might end is impressively varied and creative, and includes the human race being rendered sterile by mutated salmonella, and an errant experiment at the CERN supercollider creating a quantum condition that destroys not just life on earth but the entire universe as well. Readers concerned with the big questions Poundstone explores will find much of interest in this enjoyable mathematics primer, even if they are likely to remain unconvinced the equation is as intellectually transformative as he claims.