I was thinking about probability the other day. Why? I heard a rather remarkable story. A man who was struck by lightning won the lottery…and his daughter was also struck by lightning. The odds of such a thing occurring? 1 in 2.6 trillion. Let me put that in perspective for you:
1 in 2,600,000,000,000.
Now why is this relevant? Because he beat the odds. Incredibly long odds. Odds that are so long it’s really hard to compare it to anything else. Which made me think about what it really means for something to be “improbable.”
A lot of people take improbable to be the equivalent of impossible when we’re talking about 1 in 2.6 trillion. Clearly, though, something being improbable–even incredibly, remotely improbable–doesn’t preclude its possibility. It seemed, as I pondered this, that improbability might not even make something more unlikely.
Given a system as large as the universe and a large enough span of time, one would think that incredibly “rare” events, like this man and his daughter both being struck by lightning and then winning the lottery, wouldn’t really be that rare. That given a large enough stage and enough time, even very unlikely things would play out.
Imagine that you and your daughter have both survived being struck by lightning (let’s hope this doesn’t really happen). To celebrate the fact, you decide to buy a lottery ticket because, hey, you’re feeling lucky after surviving that! Now imagine that you’re about to buy the ticket, and your friend who accompanied you (who apparently is a master statistician) points out, “Hey, do you realize that if you bought that ticket your odds of winning would be 1 in 2.6 trillion?” What would you think? It might not stop you from buying the ticket on a whim, but you’d probably think you have less than a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.
And yet, someone did exactly that.
And it didn’t take a billion years. He didn’t need to buy 2.6 trillion lottery tickets to make it happen. It took a very very very short amount of time on a cosmic scale to occur. So I asked myself, well does improbability even mean anything, then? Can amazing, mind-boggling things that seem to happen against all odds actually be commonplace throughout the universe? What if rare events and amazing coincidences happen all the time? To take this to a level worthy of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, there’s nothing that says very improbable things can’t happen often–they just probably won’t. In other words, the odds of the everything being favorable for rare things to happen frequently are slim, but not nil. It could very well be that things have happened to have occurred in a way as to allow improbable things to occur frequently.
Of course it could also very well be that I don’t understand math that well, and that these random thoughts I’ve had are totally wrong. In fact, that seems highly probable.