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The Unfinished Game – Keith Devlin


The Unfinished Game - Keith Devlin

The Unfinished Game – Keith Devlin

In my previous (before children) life I taught maths and I still like maths (learning it, tutoring it, etc.).

First, this book had an easy conversational style – you don’t have to be into maths to understand or enjoy it. It was about a series of letters written between Fermat and Pascal that lead to probability theory. It is hard for us to imagine a world without probability, but people thought it was impossible to predict future events (it was the will of god).

Blurb …

Before the mid-seventeenth century, scholars generally agreed that it was impossible to predict something by calculating mathematical outcomes. One simply could not put a numerical value on the likelihood that a particular event would occur. Even the outcome of something as simple as a dice roll or the likelihood of showers instead of sunshine was thought to lie in the realm of pure, unknowable chance.The issue remained intractable until Blaise Pascal wrote to Pierre de Fermat in 1654, outlining a solution to the ?unfinished game” problem: how do you divide the pot when players are forced to end a game of dice before someone has won? The idea turned out to be far more seminal than Pascal realized. From it, the two men developed the method known today as probability theory.

In The Unfinished Game, mathematician and NPR commentator Keith Devlin tells the story of this correspondence and its remarkable impact on the modern world: from insurance rates, to housing and job markets, to the safety of cars and planes, calculating probabilities allowed people, for the first time, to think rationally about how future events might unfold.

Mr (Dr?) Devlin presents a piece of the correspondence and then explains it – he does a great job of simplifying complicated ideas. I found this book fascinating. The different writing styles of Fermat and Pascal, the fact that Pascal struggled a bit with probability (that was quite reassuring).

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