Monday, July 20, 2009

Review of ‘The Unfinished Game’ by Keith Devlin

I really enjoyed reading this book. It is an excellent account of the history of probability theory. It is essentially a correspondence between the two great French mathematicians, Fermat and Pascal.
The book has an interesting hook with the opening paragraph being a letter sent by Pascal to Fermat. The basis of this correspondence asks ‘how should we divide the stakes if a particular game is incomplete’. This lays the ground work for probability theory.
I liked the style of the author and the way he dipped into some straightforward mathematics in this book.
The history is particularly appealing with the explanation of how Graunt developed his mortality tables. It also goes on to state that Newton’s first great mathematical discovery, the binomial theorem, is based on Pascal’s triangle. Additionally the book explains with entertainment detail the personalities of Fermat and Pascal.
There are also some very fascinating applications of probability mentioned in the book such as how the repeated use of Bayes theorem predicted an attack on the pentagon and also the explanation of why DNA profiling is so reliable.
However the book has the following shortcomings:
It should have stated the dates of birth and death of all the mathematicians mentioned in the book.
On page 83 the author misses the first Fermat prime 3.
The last sentence in the second paragraph on page 102 should say ‘bet 24 to 40, that is 3 to 5, that a sixteen year old will die before the age thirty six’.
This is a book for anybody interested in history of mathematics or mathematics in general. You do not need to be a mathematician to appreciate this book.
Overall I would say this is a very successful book and would recommend anybody interested in mathematics or history of mathematics to purchase this book.