The book – Chance – is about the science and secrets of luck, randomness and probability. Edited by Michael Brooks, it raises a question which rings out every day that humans exist. “We usually don’t have an answer — at least not one thats correct.” There is no pool of people that didn’t get born, so there is no way to calculate a probability of you existing. Thats not a miracle but just a link in the human chain. The role of chance in the universe cannot be denied. After all it appears to be the most fundamental process in the laws of physics.
Dig deep into the way everything works and you find yourself dealing with quantum physics. This describes the world of the extremely small things from which all matter is made. Atoms, electrons, protons — all obey the laws of quantum theory. This describes the world of the extremely small things from which all matter is made. There is no cause and effect at the heart of quantum theory: measuring a property such as a spin of an electron might be clockwise or anti-clockwise. But the actual result of any single measurement is entirely unknowable in advance: it manifests at random.
One of the most famous quotes of Eienstein’s reaction to this, a refusal to believe this is how the universe operates. ‘God does not play dice’ he said to physicist Neils Bohr whose response was brilliant. Bohr scolded Einstein for telling God what to do. He was right: our natural intuition that all effects must have a cause is not to be trusted. It evolved over millenia thanks to a need to survive in hostile landscapes. Our ancestors were better off assuming the bush over there is moving because of a tiger waiting to pounce than blithely assuming there is no reason for the rustling leaves. Evasive action may not always be necessary, but it’s the ultimate example of better safe than sorry.
We marvel at the discovery that two people at a party share the same birthday — another ‘what are the chances’? But if there are 23 or more people in a room, a shared birthday is statistically likely. The editor warns playing the birthday statistician is more likely to make one the party pooper than the event’s life and soul. Thats because dealing properly with chance takes real mental effort, and parties aren’t always the best place to demand that. However, chance is not always about gritty thinking; it can be a gateway to great fun and even unexpected success. Delve into myths of people being naturally lucky, or star-cross’d and thus fated to suffer, and you’ll discover that you can make your luck.
But scientists are not sitting down waiting for fate to determine their worthiness for a Nobel prize. Instead they are skewing the odds in their favour by analysing serendipity and putting themselves in the best possible position to stumble across new discoveries. Perhaps nowhere is the application of chance more serious than in the courtroom. If you have ever served on a jury, you’ll have had the uncomfortable experience of making a life changing decision (with the small comfort that its always about someone else’s life) based on much less information than you’d like. Rare is the open and shut case; instead the jury’s verdict hangs on its members’ judgement of likelihood and probability.
Chance brings to the fore these and many other revolutions-in-progress. Chance is everywhere and always has been. It was in the primeordial quantum fluctuations that led to the formation of the Milky Way. It sparked the random genetic mutation that gave the first human brains access to unprecedented supplies of thought-fuelling glucose. Can science show us how to beat the odds from genetic forecasting to winning the lottery. Chances are science can tell us a lot about the perfect bet, sexual attraction, freak accidents and even the random events that led to your own conception.
All we know about daily life is a roll of the dice. If the odds against winning the lottery jackpot are a mind boggling 14 million to one, why do we persist in thinking that we are in with a chance. Some of New Scientists sharpest minds provide insights into luck, randomness, risk and probability. They explore the world of chance and help explain what chance really means. The universe did not have to produce matter, or a planet with a stable enough climate for life to evolve. Whats more life — especially complex life — did not have to evolve.
Neither did species. By the time we get to the chance mutations that made humans what they are, you might marvel at how lucky you are to exist. Stephen Battersby and David Shiga are at hand to explain our cosmological luck. This universe it turns out is something of a fluke. It seems an extraordinary accident that matter exists at all: the cosmos could easily have been a bland sea of radiation. That’s because after inflation, the universe was still unimaginably hot and dense.
The next cosmic accident was the advent of celestial fire. As we now appreciate matter prevailed and the universe cooled. One particular meteorite discovered in 2003 in Bishnupur, India, contained large quantities of Iron-60, a radioactive isotope that decays over a few million years into stable nickel-60. Because iron-60 is so short lived interstellar gas generally holds just a trace of it. The large amounts in the Bishnupur meteorite imply that our solar system formed from a much richer brew.
Another fluke is the formation of the moon. It was born from the fact that the solar system in which the infant earth found itself was an unsettled environment, filled with lumps of rock whizzing around on irregular orbits. Some 4.5 billion years ago, one of these, something around the size of Mars, clobbered our planet. The result was a comprehensive rearrangement. Some of the impacting material stuck, while the rest was blasted into orbit along with bits of Earth excavated from the collision. There it formed the moon. Indeed, Chance provides quite some food for thought.