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Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

The theory that would not die

Bayes rule is well known in computing circles, but for a long time it was rejected by many as being unaccectably subjective. In 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 Sharon Bertsch McGrayne tells its story.

Bayes' discovered his rule in the middle of the 18th century, but did not publicise it. Laplace used it extensively in his calculations, but drifted towards the opposing 'frequentist' view. We hear of how it resurfaced in 20th century warfare, used in aiming shells, cracking codes and searching for missing nuclear bombs. Anywhere where getting the job done was more important that being theoretically correct. The amount it was really used was often hidden by confidentiality though, and in academia most thought that it should be shunned. The coming of computers made the often complex Bayesian calculations more tractable, and now it is a large part of statistics.

The book was well written, McGrayne keeps the reader interested in the subject, which is a difficult task for a history such as this.Sometimes I wanted to see more examples of how Bayes is actually used, but I can understand that McGrayne wanted to keep mathematics to a minimum. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in how the vast amount of information in our lives is processed.

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Hardcover 336 pages  
ISBN: 0300169698
Salesrank: 634886
Weight:1.4 lbs
Published: 2011 Yale University Press
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Hardcover 288 pages  
ISBN: 0300169698
Salesrank: 651580
Weight:1.4 lbs
Published: 2011 Yale University Press
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Hardcover 336 pages  
ISBN: 0300169698
Salesrank: 410615
Weight:1.4 lbs
Published: 2011 Yale University Press
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Product Description

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.