The Unfinished Game

The Unfinished Game coverBefore 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: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern, acclaimed popular mathematics writer Keith Devlin, known to millions of NPR listeners as “The Math Guy” on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon, 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. (Basic Books/Perseus)