David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel

By Robert Black


Class sets 10 or more print books: $12.00 each
Order code: 8076S

David Blackwell was an African-American working in the years before and during the Civil Rights Movement, but that didn’t seem to hold him back. Although much of his work stemmed from his study of duels, his influence stretches across a wide range of subjects, and today he is regarded as a brilliant mathematician whose contributions helped to lay the foundation for new fields such as information theory.


A Mathical Book Prize Honor Book!

David Blackwell’s interest in math was sparked in a high school geometry class, and he spent the rest of his life pursuing solutions to mathematical problems, but not just in geometry. Blackwell’s career is particularly interesting because he worked in an array of subjects, instead of delving deeply into a single one, as is more typical of eminent mathematicians. He would read the work of others and then investigate different cases or applications of theorems that he thought hadn’t been explored thoroughly enough. As a result, his influence stretched across a wide range of subjects, although it all centered on the basic concepts of mathematical and statistical decision-making.

Much of Blackwell’s work stemmed from his study of duels. If two people are given guns with one bullet in them and are told to stand apart from each other—Old West style—draw, and fire, is there any way to tell who would emerge as the winner? Blackwell thought it was possible, and he worked on the problem until he had an answer as to what the outcome was likely to be, given a variety of conditions. That sort of thinking infused all of his work, and today he is regarded as a brilliant mathematician whose contributions helped to lay the foundation for new fields such as information theory. That he was an African-American working in the years before and during the Civil Rights Movement makes his accomplishments that much more remarkable.

There’s a “Doing the Math” section at the end of the book so that readers can try working out the math themselves!


Mathematical Lives: Biographies of Mathematicians
10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18
5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Mathematics, History, Novels
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“Robert Black’s David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel is a short but delightful biography of one of the great mathematicians and statisticians of the 20th century. Black leads us from Blackwell’s first geometry class to his study of zero-sum and imperfect information games all the way to receiving the National Award of Science. Interesting mathematical problems and proofs are peppered throughout Blackwell’s general biography, making this book not only a great introduction to a mathematician’s life but also intellectually compelling.

“…Black carefully leads us through Blackwell’s ingenious work, and with a pencil and paper at hand, you can easily follow along. In fact, one of the parts I enjoyed most about the book comes at the very end in the Appendix. In there, Black adds a collection of small problems, very similar to those covered in the book, to be tried at the reader’s leisure. As with most math, you really begin to understand Blackwell’s statistics after having tried your hand at some of the problems.

“Unfortunately, mathematics is often separated from its historical context in order to be grouped by theme. Yet Black excels at intertwining history and mathematics through the life of this mathematician. Blackwell’s study of imperfect information games takes place during the Cold War, where enemy intelligence was closely guarded. Black shares the historical rationale for these discoveries, bringing to life the process of math research.

“Although Black’s prose can be somewhat simple at times, the math concepts introduced are simply enchanting. A great read!” – Madeleine de Belloy, student reviewer for Mathical (click here to read the full review)

“…The life story of David Blackwell is intertwined organically with some of the most curious problems that Blackwell worked on and the theories he made significant advances in. We learn about the mathematical study of games, and duels in particular, which Blackwell thought deeply and productively about. We also learn about Bayesian probability theory, which approaches the problems of probability in the background context of what we know and what we believe. These topics could get very hairy and pretty incomprehensible very quickly, but the author skillfully manages to give us exactly what we need to get a a general sense of the theories, only focusing on a handful of concrete situations that clearly display the mathematics without making things too complicated.

“David Blackwell had an illustrious career, spanning several decades, and today he is remembered as a brilliant mathematician. There is a well-known theorem and an annual award named after him. However, his story also reflects many instances of how things were a lot more difficult for a black person in the United States, no matter how brilliant. Robert Black, the author, does not shy away from this dimension of Blackwell’s life story, and I believe that young bunnies will be able to appreciate Blackwell’s achievements even more, given this background.

“…even if you are not such a math fan, the book is worth reading, as it tells a unique tale, involving math, sure, but also a whole lot of humanity. A crisp snapshot of the whole twentieth century comes along as a bonus.” – Sprinkles’ Reviews, Book Bunnies Blog (click here to read the full review)