December 2, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

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Improbable Things Always Happen

17 November, 2015 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


Extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month. “An unusual day is when nothing unusual happens.” But why?

On 3 July 2000, the Washington newspaper The Columbian printed the Pick 4 Oregon Lottery results: 6, 8, 5, 5. Nothing surprising in that, except for the fact that the newspaper was printed before the lottery numbers were drawn.

When the police went to investigate they were told that the newspaper’s computer had crashed just hours before it was due to be printed, so they’d had to recreate the paper in a rush. By accident they’d pasted in the winning numbers from the Virginia lottery, instead of from the preceding day’s Oregon lottery. And the improbability principle had come into play: the Virginia lottery’s four numbers just happened to be the ones which were due to come up in the Oregon lottery.

The King James Bible was published in the year that Shakespeare turned 46. Psalm 46 of this bible is God is Our Refuge and Strength. The 46th word of this psalm is shake. The 46th word from the end is spear. A bizarre coincidence or something more?

Why is it that incredibly unlikely phenomena actually happen quite regularly and why should we, in fact, expect such things to happen?

Professor David Hand answers this question by weaving together various strands of probability into a unified explanation, which he calls the improbability principle.

This lecture will appeal not only to those who love stories about startling coincidences and extraordinarily rare events, but also to those who are interested in how a single bold idea links areas as diverse as gambling, the weather, airline disasters and creative writing as well as the origin of life and even the universe.

The Improbability Principle will change your perspective on how the world works – and tell you what the Bible code and Shakespeare have in common, how to win the lottery, why Apple’s song shuffling was made less random to seem more random. Oh and why lightning does in fact strike twice…

But Hand is no believer in superstitions, prophecies, or the paranormal. His definition of “miracle” is thoroughly rational. No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive. All we need, Hand argues, is a firm grounding in a powerful set of laws: the laws of inevitability, of truly large numbers, of selection, of the probability lever, and of near enough.


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