David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel: Youth Review

Posted by on Jun 14, 2021 in Featured Titles, News | No Comments

The following review of 2021 Mathical Honor Book David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel by Robert Black was submitted by California high school student Madeleine de Belloy.

David Blackwell and the Deadliest DuelRobert 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.

The book mainly focuses on 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?” In the study of such games, we start to accumulate variables: the probability of the players successfully hitting each other, the maximum probability of shooting and hitting given that the other person has already shot and missed, the expected value… Yet, 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!

David Blackwell and the Deadliest Duel
By Robert Black
Royal Fireworks Press, 2019
2021 Mathical Award Winner, Grades 9-12


Madeleine de BelloyMadeleine de Belloy is a Franco-American high school student living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Madeleine loves math, particularly number theory, and is involved in the preparation program for the French Math Olympiad team and Math en Jeans, a math research program. She has both attended and taught at math circles and spends her summers at math camps.