Unfinished Game

Mathematician Keith Devlin writes well, and The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the Modern World is a fast read, technically accurate, factually entertaining. If only it weren't yet another example of a Molehill Book, one that makes a mountain out of a tiny thread in the tapestry of history! Devlin focuses on the 1654 correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat, letters that included several key concepts of what's now elementary probability theory.

Were others doing the same thing at about the same time? Yes. Would the world of math have come to the same conclusions, with or without the Fermat-Pascal dialog? Yes. Would a book sell as many copies if it honestly tried to depict an actual constellation of discoveries, instead of telling a ripping yarn about the Great Man who Did It All By Himself? No, at least not unless the author is another Tolstoy.

But setting aside that fundamental flaw, Devlin does a decent job. In particular, the peripheral stories he tells are quite engaging: John Graunt and the first mortality tables, Daniel Bernoulli and the concept of utility, Edmund Halley and the analysis of annuities, etc. Neat stuff, deserving of more attention.

(cf. CelebrityHistory (1999-05-08), WebsOfEvidence (2000-02-15), LogicAndInformation (2001-08-01), TrueStory (2002-11-30), MillenniumMath (2002-12-05), StayingTheCourse (2005-07-11), Joy of Sets (2010-06-25), ...) - ^z - 2010-12-02