The Theory that Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, & Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

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Yale University Press, 2011 - Mathematics - 335 pages
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Bayes rule appears to be a straightforward, one-line theorem: by updating our initial beliefs with objective new information, we get a new and improved belief. To its adherents, it is an elegant statement about learning from experience. To its opponents, it is subjectivity run amok. In the first-ever account of Bayes' rule for general readers, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne explores this controversial theorem and the human obsessions surrounding it. She traces its discovery by an amateur mathematician in the 1740s through its development into roughly its modern form by French scientist Pierre Simon Laplace. She reveals why respected statisticians rendered it professionally taboo for 150 years at the same time that practitioners relied on it to solve crises involving great uncertainty and scanty information, even breaking Germany's Enigma code during World War II, and explains how the advent of off-the-shelf computer technology in the 1980s proved to be a game-changer. Today, Bayes' rule is used everywhere from DNA de-coding to Homeland Security.Drawing on primary source material and interviews with statisticians and other scientists, The Theory That Would Not Die is the riveting account of how a seemingly simple theorem ignited one of the greatest controversies of all time.

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This was an excellent biography of Bayes' Rule, which basically glossed over Bayes himself. The author chose instead to examine the lesser known scientists and applications associated with Bayes. As a result, after reading this you are likely to call Bayes' Rule BLP Rule, for Bayes-Laplace Rule. The author was most interested in highlighting the work done by Pierre-Simone Laplace, who I feel I have come to know so much more after this biography. Prior to this book, Laplace came on my radar after watching a Sean Carroll talk , listening toFrederick Gregory's lecture series, History of Science 1700 - 1900, and reading David Bodanis' e=mc2. (My memory indicated Bodanis included Laplace in his book, but attempts to confirm this have not been successful. Maybe credit is due another author. It is possible I have oddly attributed my knowledge of Laplace to someone who didn't even include him a book. Memory is so strange.).
I remember being a bit wowed and intrigued after first learning about Laplace; and yet, not doing any further research. What a shame that would have been. Laplace was an exceptional scientist. He not only came up with Bayes Rule by himself, but he also did more work than Bayes to contribute to humankind's understanding of probability, fought vigorously to separate religion and scientific inquiry, insisted on facts over belief, and was extremely productive in developing a foundation for statistics-- despite receiving so little reward. You will be treated to how, as a thank you from society, his life and reputation were ruined. Poor Laplace.
The author also provided a fairly good biography of other contributors to Bayes' Rule development and application throughout history. The rule itself was extremely unpopular. It's successes were hidden in wartime to protect war secrets. Those who used it were often bullied by the larger statistics community. And yet, the theory lived on, often under the radar, to continue helping researchers solve the hard problems. When the author provided a survey of how Bayes was used, I was familiar with the instances she highlighted but didn't realize Bayes was the method used to solve the problems at hand.
Since the author included, what I can only imagine, was every instance in which Bayes was employed, at times I felt like, "Yes, I have got it. Move on." I got a bit bored at times during the last few chapters. However, I think it would be unfair to criticize a book for including too much information about the focus subject:)
This was solid research, lots of it, that created a very thorough biography of the Rule/Theory itself.


Part II Second World War Era
Part III The Glorious Revival
Part IV To Prove Its Worth
Part V Victory

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About the author (2011)

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne is the author of several critically-acclaimed books about scientific discoveries, including "Prometheans in the Lab", "Nobel Prize Women in Science", and "Blue Genes and Polyester Plants".

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