Aug. 7, 2009
Math and the Games People Play
A 17th-century French gambler helped spark the modern theory of probability, says mathematician Ron Gould, author of the newly published "Mathematics in Games, Sport and Gambling: The Games People Play."
The textbook, based on Gould's popular freshmen seminar by the same name, reveals elementary probability theory and discrete mathematics through card tricks, dice rolling, baseball and other sports and games.
"The biggest complaint you hear from a student taking a math requirement is they don't see how they will ever use it," says Gould, a Goodrich C. White Professor of Mathematics who has taught at Emory for 30 years. "I thought the students would be more eager to learn the theories if they were having fun."
Gould's textbook, published by CRC Press, begins with a chapter called "Of Dice and Men," describing how a gambler known as the Chevalier de Mere asked the mathematician Blaise Pascal to help him understand the odds in dice games. Pascal began a series of letters on the subject with another famed mathematician, Pierre de Fermat, and the modern theory of probability began taking shape.
Play the Cards Right
The text continues by revealing the number theories surrounding everything from card tricks to baseball and poker, providing vivid insights into math's value. "I've had a lot of students tell me they are never going to Las Vegas, when they see how bad the odds are with various games," Gould says.
The aim of the book and seminar is to help students develop a more logical, questioning approach to solving problems, Gould says. "And, I hope they have a good time," he adds.
Gould has also mentored 25 masters students and 20 PhD students. In addition to his teaching, he has authored 147 papers on graph theory and combinatorics – fundamental research areas in discrete mathematics.