“I can tell you at once that my favorite Fellow of the Royal Society was the Reverend Thomas Bayes, from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, who lived from about 1701 to 1761. He was by all accounts a hopeless preacher, but a brilliant mathematician. At some point – it is not certain when – he devised the complex mathematical equation that has come to be known as the Bayes Theorem...”

Thus begins Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, & the Genius of the Royal Society. Edited and introduced by Bill Bryson (one of your writers' favorite authors), it's a fascinating look at some of the immense achievements of science, discovery, and invention that have taken place over the past three and a half centuries. The passage continues:

“People who understand the formula can use it to work out various probability distributions – or inverse probabilities, as they are sometimes called. It is a way of arriving at statistical likelihoods based on partial information. The remarkable feature of Bayes' theorem is that it had no practical applications in his own lifetime. Although simple cases yield simple sums, most uses demand serious computational power to do the volume of calculations. So in Bayes' day it was simply an interesting but largely pointless exercise.

Bayes evidently thought so little of his theorem that he didn't bother to publish it. It was a friend who sent it to the Royal Society in London in 1763, two years after Bayes' death, where it was published in the Society's Philosophical Transactions with the modest title of 'An Essay Towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances'. In fact, it was a milestone in the history of mathematics....And its discoverer is remembered today simply because nearly 250 years ago someone at the Royal Society decided it was worth preserving his work, just in case.”

Now, perhaps you aren't particularly interested in science or mathematics, or the travels and writings of Darwin, or the history of ballooning, or crystalline structure, or any of the other topics that the essays in Seeing Further cover – that's fine. Bear in mind, though, that all these things have a direct impact on the world in which we live and the way we live in it. You might find that some part of it piques your curiosity after all, so be sure to read all about it!

Copyright © 2012, S. Halversen.

All Rights Reserved.