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

Publication date:
17 May 2011
Yale University Press
336 pages: 235 x 156 x 29mm


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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 scientific controversies of all time. 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 decoding to Homeland Security.

The Theory That Would Not Die is a vivid account of the generations-long dispute over one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of applied mathematics and statistics.

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.

"An engrossing study… Her book is a compelling and entertaining fusion of history, theory and biography."—Ian Critchley, Sunday Times

"This account of how a once reviled theory, Baye’s rule, came to underpin modern life is both approachable and engrossing."—Sunday Times

"The Theory That Would not Die is the first popular science book to document the rocky story of Bayes’s rule. At times, her tale has everything you would expect of as modern-day thriller…..To have crafted a page-turner out of the history of statistics is an impressive feat. If only lectures at university had been this racy."—David Robson, New Scientist

"The Theory That Would Not Die is a rollicking tale of the triumph of a powerful mathematical tool."—Andrew Robinson, Nature

"Scientists and statisticians have fought over a deep philosophical divide about probability, which Sharon Bertsch McGrayne explores with great clarity and wit."—Christine Evans-Pughe, Engineering and Technology Magazine

"McGrayne holds the hand of the general reader as she lays out the history of the theorem and how it is now used in just about every walk of life… Science writing at its absolute peak." The Bookseller

Watch the related video

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of The Theory That Would Not Die discusses the subject of her
book, Bayes' Theorem, at Google.

Related links

Visit Sharon Bertsch McGrayne's Official Website