A Short History of Probability

“The thing I know is that I know nothing”, says the Socratic paradox.

Even though the term ‘uncertainty’ spurs anxiety while performing the banalest activities, it has been shown that uncertainty makes us creative and instills humility and empathy. Probability is a tool to foresee the degree of certainty or uncertainty of an event. It exists everywhere around us, in our daily lives, in scientific experiments, in philosophy, religion, metaphysics and even in laws of nature.

Since when did human beings start using this tool? We don’t have an exact period but we have been using primitive forms of probability since the time we roamed around in the jungles barely being able to survive nature. Aristotle, in the 4th Century BC, came up with the idea of ‘endoxa’ which was later translated as ‘opinions of the majority or the most reputable’ or the endorsed or the most probable. In between the 5th-century and15th century terms like probable and verisimilis – which means truth like etc. are found in medieval texts. However, there was no quantitative approach associated to the probability that we know of.

It is during the 15th and 16th centuries that the numerical dimensions of probability were developed in Europe. Historians describe this period as the rise of the west with the Renaissance, colonialism, several important scientific inventions, a division of the Church, expansion of the Ottoman empire etc. Most of the earlier studies around probabilities revolved around gambling and it was only at a later point that probability was associated with scientific experiments and statistics.

Given below is a very short history of probability outlining the most important contributions.

1550, Milan – Jerome Cardan, a physician, mathematician, astrologer, philosopher and gambler, known for his mercurial and bifold character wrote about probability and the rolling of dice. His lost manuscript was found in 1663 and printed.

1624, France – Mathematician and child prodigy Blaise Pascal and mathematician and lawyer Pierre de Fermat another French mathematician, connect to form basic probability theory.

1657, France – Christiaan Huygens a Dutch physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and inventor published the first book on probability with problems associated with gambling.

1685, Switzerland – Jacob Bernoulli mathematician who contributed the earlier version of the law of large numbers with Bernoulli trials and random variables.

1718, England – Abraham de Moivre, a mathematician and a devout Christian wrote the Doctrine of Chances.

1736, England – Thomas Bayes the Presbyterian minister and statistician’s work that contained Baye’s theorem of inverse probability was found and published.

1812, France – Pierre-Simon Laplace or the Newton of France who had made contributions to probability since the late 1700s published his works that tie probability to a spectrum of scientific problems. He also developed the now very fashionable Bayesian interpretation.

1867, Russia – Pafnuty Lvovich Chebyshev, a Russian mathematician proves Chebyshev’s inequality.

1933, Russia – Andrey Kolmogorov, a mathematician publishes his book Foundations of the Theory of Probability that established the axiomatic foundations of probability.

These mathematicians were some of the greatest thinkers of their times and their achievements are certainly not limited to those given below.  It is fascinating and well worth our time to read about their lives and work.

As you might have noticed, all these ideas were the product of the scientific and cultural revolution that took place in the west after the medieval period. The eastern studies around probability have not found its way to the mainstream publications and very little has been known about them. If you are aware of such works, please write to us anywhere we are on the Internet or e-mail us at she@shedrivesdata.com.

If you want to brush up your probability basics please go here and for a deeper understanding of probability and its interpretations visit here.

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