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Do Dice Play God?

Ian Stewart
Basic Books
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Amy Ackerberg-Hastings
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The incredibly prolific Ian Stewart is surely a familiar name to many MAA readers, given the number of his books that have been reviewed in MAA Reviews, let alone the classics he has revised and annotated and the edited collections to which he has contributed, several of which may also be found by searching the Reviews. Do Dice Play God? belongs among his volumes aimed at popularizing mathematics, as Stewart discusses examples of uncertainty from mathematics, science, and daily life.
He begins by setting up six "ages" of uncertainty, trends that added a dimension to our ability to live with uncertainty: the invention of belief systems, faith in the potential of science to explain nature, the development of probability and statistics, the discovery of quantum mechanics, the articulation of chaos theory, and the acceptance and management of uncertainty. However, Stewart makes no effort to unfold a narrative of these ages. Instead, he follows the introduction with 16 vignettes in which, he suggests, one or more of the ages can be observed. The topics move from past to present on the whole, but the chronology is not strict. Each chapter could be read individually, as is typical of Stewart's books, although he does add a conclusion that revisits the themes he laid out in the introduction. This 18th chapter includes the pithy statement: "Most of this book has been about how humanity took unknown unknowns and turned them into known unknowns" (p. 262).
Many of the topics are standard in histories of mathematics and science: Cardano on games of chance, Jakob Bernoulli's Ars conjectandi, the bell curve as articulated by Adolphe Quetelet and Francis Galton, Thomas Bayes's theorem, and the second law of thermodynamics, to name a few. Stewart also addresses psychological aspects of probability and uncertainty, the challenges of weather prediction, the design of medical trials, the 2008 financial crisis, and the evolution of the human brain. The prose is generally accessible, but it often seemed to me that the explanations were not informative enough for non-mathematicians nor detailed enough for mathematicians. For me, the framing device of the six ages did not sufficiently tie together the topics and chapters. Overall, the volume was serviceable but blander than compelling. I would, though, consider it as a gift for the right STEM-inclined secondary school student or adult friend.


Amy Ackerberg-Hastings ([email protected]) is an independent scholar who researches the histories of American and European mathematics education, mathematical instruments, and women in science and mathematics, among other topics.

Table of Contents

  1. Six Ages of Uncertainty

  2. Reading the Entrails

  3. Roll of the Dice

  4. Toss of a Coin

  5. Too Much Information

  6. Fallacies and Paradoxes

  7. Social Physics

  8. How Certain Are You?

  9. Law and Disorder

  10. Unpredicting the Predictable

  11. The Weather Factory

  12. Remedial Measures

  13. Financial Fortune-Telling

  14. Our Bayesian Brain

  15. Quantum Uncertainty

  16. Do Dice Play God?

  17. Exploiting Uncertainty

  18. Unknown Unknowns