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.
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.