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

3.54 of 5 stars 3.54  ·  rating details  ·  180 ratings  ·  28 reviews
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 rea ...more
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published September 23rd 2008 by Basic Books (first published January 1st 2008)
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Ben
I've been reading some books recently with a new sort of question in mind: would I ever give this book to a kid I was teaching?

In the case of _The Unfinished Game_, Keith Devlin's little riff on the 17th century exchange between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat and its role in the history of risk management, the answer is absolutely not.

I did not fail to find anything of value in this book. I read it because I've become increasingly interested as an educator in the history of math, especially
...more
Valerie
Letter writing is most certainly a lost art. "I beg you to inform me how you would proceed in your research on this problem. I shall receive your reply with respect and joy, even if your opinion should be contrary to mine." contrasted with today's modern flame wars. Having just taken a class in decision quality at Stanford, I found the discussions of Baye's formula and assessing risk by using probability very interesting. It is difficult to imagine a time before probability mathematics.
Kelly V
This book tells the story of the origins of probability, which emerged more recently than you would expect for such a fundamental field. It's somewhat famous among certain types of nerds that probability theory came from a handful of mathematicians pondering certain types of gambling. Specifically, the real origins are documented in a series of letters between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat. So this book includes selections from the (extant) letters and explains and discusses them, giving th ...more
Doug
I loved this book. Pascal and Fermat never met in person but their exchange of letters started a revolution in terms of how mankind sees the world - in terms of risk management. Devlin documents the exchange and highlights significant topics in the discussion. I think his characterization of the problem of points, Pascal's probabilistic argument for believing in God, and his numerous examples of how Baye's theorem is used (especially in health care) are some of the best I've seen. And, he does a ...more
Eric
I’ve got a dirty secret - I’m mathematically challenged, and it has always been so. I’ve had to work extra hard to be extra average at math. Secretly, I’d like to be good at math, and understand some of the advanced compression, encryption, and other algorithms that kick around the interwebs. Every now and then, I’ll pick up a math-oriented book, and I usually put it down in despair. Not so The Unfinished Game, which is as much about history as it is about probability.

In a nutshell, the book des
...more
Lars Guthrie
The low rating (for me, I know I rate high but I like to think I read what I'm interested in and know about so that my discrimintion is shown as much by my selection as my evaluation) is more due to my weaknesses in math than Devlin's style or story. I would have liked more context (and I mean non-mathematical context)--like the mise en scène of late Seventeeth Century France and the other eras and locales included here. I once had a European history prof who made the development of annuities re ...more
Kelly Jackson
I do have a math background for disclosure purposes. I found the subject matter and historical context interesting. The writing style was a little grating. There was a lot of condescension in the prose. It's OK if you don't understand it...
David Robertus
A generally well done look at the origins of probability theory, the implications for the insurance industry and so on. The author takes a very interesting look at the mindset (or lack thereof) of people prior to the wide spread use of statistics and probability theory in modern every day life. This is intriguing to me in two ways- first,what life is like without it, and two, how frequently misused it is today (which is also addressed albeit briefly).
mandy
While this is book is meant to appeal to "regular" people, and not mathematicians, I found that the math that is included was at times hard to grasp. Luckily, Devlin has a knack for explaining the principles behind the formulas with real world examples, which helped a great deal. We also find out a lot of history about various 17th century mathematicians, so history buffs might enjoy this as well. Overall an interesting read.
Lauren Hutchinson
I really like statistics so I may be a bit biased. At times the book did get into some complex but the examples helped to convey the complex math that was being discussed. It was nice getting to learn a bit more about Pascal and Fermat, plus a whole lot of other characters. I'm not sure this book would be that enjoyable for anyone without an appreciation for vague mathematics.
Michael Artin
So far...the book is compelling simply because of the subject matter. But Devlin's style is so smug and sensationalistic that it gets in the way of digging into the interesting history. He spends so much time telling you "this was really important" and assuring you, "Don't worry if you don't get this...they didn't either!" Speaks down to the reader.
Thom
I appreciate the import of this idea, and the math behind it. I mostly liked the presentation - bits of the letters and the history behind them. Something about the writing - the style perhaps - didn't sit right with me. Will read some of Devlin's online column to see if I can narrow it down sometime.
Linda
This is a book about the letter correspondence between Fermat and Pascal that began in 1654 and led to the development of the foundations of probability theory and implications for risk management today. This book combines 17th C math history and 21st C economics.
Felicia
I wouldn't have minded a little more info on why Pascal was wrong about when you stop the game, although now it has been explained to me. In general, it was a good book and fast reading. I preferred the discussion of the letter to the discussion of the consequences.
Elliot
A brief history of Pascal, Fermat, their relationship, and many other contributing mathematicians in the area of study of statistics and the theory of probability. A bit too technical and far too dry for my tastes, very informative though.
Ray
The history and various applications of the mathematics, probability and statistics was interesting, but overall, it was quite a bland book. I know a bit more now, but that's all it really is, informative.
Rendier
Kept feeling it's much ado about nothing. I understand the stats and the significance, but I think the author is a bit overexcited. However, the descriptions of the historical characters are quite interesting.
Jill
A light read for the mathematically trained, but very enjoyable. I would recommend this to a general reader who wonders how people like me can possibly get excited about math.
John Landis
A complete waste of my time. I would rather they chose either the math or the people involved to concentrate on instead of focusing on both and failing twice.
Scott Franklin
This was fantastic!!! I greatly enjoyed the historical perspective to the mathematics. I'll be recommending this book to ALL my students.
Snail in Danger (Sid) Nicolaides
I thought this would be great ... but it turned out to not be that exciting. At least, the first couple chapters weren't.
weeshop Shopinski
fascinating - enjoyed the history and really liked the math part although didn't completely understand
Joel Patton
Jan 28, 2009 Joel Patton is currently reading it
The bios seem a little thin, and I've already run across a chunk of more-or-less repeated text.
Monte
exchange of letters between Pascal and Fermat that gave us probability
Richie
About the invention of probability theory by Pascal and Fermat
Fraser Kinnear
The Drunkard's Walk or Against The Gods are much better
Pieter Lombaard
Entertaining and informative.
Ina
Ina marked it as to-read
Mar 25, 2015
Patrick O'Connell
Patrick O'Connell marked it as to-read
Mar 15, 2015
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Dr. Keith Devlin is a co-founder and Executive Director of the university's H-STAR institute, a Consulting Professor in the Department of Mathematics, a co-founder of the Stanford Media X research network, and a Senior Researcher at CSLI. He is a World Economic Forum Fellow and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His current research is focused on the use of differ ...more
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