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Yale University Press
The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

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

by Sharon Bertsch McGrayneSharon Bertsch McGrayne


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A vivid account of the generations-long dispute over Bayes' rule, one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of applied mathematics and statistics

"An intellectual romp touching on, among other topics, military ingenuity, the origins of modern epidemiology, and the theological foundation of modern mathematics."—Michael Washburn, Boston Globe

A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

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 (Alan Turing's role in 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300188226
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/25/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 430,659
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne is the author of numerous books, including Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries and Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World. She lives in Seattle.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition ix

Preface and Note to Readers xi

Acknowledgments xv

Part I Enlightenment and the Anti-Bayesian Reaction 1

1 Causes in the Air 3

2 The Man Who Did Everything 13

3 Many Doubts, Few Defenders 34

Part II Second World War Era 59

4 Bayes Goes to War 61

5 Dead and Buried Again 87

Part III The Glorious Revival 89

6 Arthur Bailey 91

7 From Tool to Theology 97

8 Jerome Cornfield, Lung Cancer, and Heart Attacks 108

9 There's Always a First Time 119

10 46,656 Varieties 129

Part IV To Prove Its Worth 137

11 Business Decisions 139

12 Who Wrote The Federalist? 154

13 The Cold Warrior 163

14 Three Mile Island 176

15 The Navy Searches 182

Part V Victory 211

16 Eureka! 213

17 Rosetta Stories 233

Epilogue 252

Appendixes 257

Dr. Fisher's Casebook 257

Applying Bayes' Rule 259

Notes 271

Glossary for Nonmathematical Readers 283

Bibliography 287

Reading List 320

Index 323

What People are Saying About This

Scott L. Zeger

Delightful ... [and] McGrayne gives a superb synopsis of the fundamental development of probability and statistics by Laplace.—Scott L. Zeger of Johns Hopkins, Physics Today 

— Physics Today

Andrew I. Dale

Well known in statistical circles, Bayes’s Theorem was first given in a posthumous paper by the English clergyman Thomas Bayes in the mid-eighteenth century. McGrayne provides a fascinating account of the modern use of this result in matters as diverse as cryptography, assurance, the investigation of the connection between smoking and cancer, RAND, the identification of the author of certain papers in The Federalist, election forecasting and the search for a missing H-bomb. The general reader will enjoy her easy style and the way in which she has successfully illustrated the use of a result of prime importance in scientific work.— Andrew I. Dale, author of A History of Inverse Probability From Thomas Bayes to Karl Pearson and Most Honorable Remembrance: The Life and Work of Thomas Bayes

From the Publisher

"If you are not thinking like a Bayesian, perhaps you should be." —-New York Times Book Review

Robert E. Kass

Compelling, fast-paced reading full of lively characters and anecdotes. . . .A great story.—Robert E. Kass, Carnegie Mellon University

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