What are the chances?

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For centuries, people have been trying to calculate the outcomes to situations – from working out life expectancy, to picking Lottery numbers. Cambridge University Professor, David Spiegelhalter, recently explored these ideas in his documentary “Tails you win: The Science of Chance”.

Many people worry about the risk of dying during day-to-day activities; scientists have come up with a unit of risk, called the micromort, that represents a one in a million chance of death. An average 18 year old has a chance of dying of 500 micromorts, however when you reach 58, this value increases to 7000 micromorts! It may surprise you to know that using this unit, you have the same chance of dying whilst running a marathon, as skydiving (7 micromorts).

Living in New York for 2 days carries a risk of 1 micromort due to the air pollution, as does eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter (due to the increased risk of liver cancer from Alfatoxin B).

Apparently for every day that you are 5kg overweight, you lose half an hour off your life. Another half an hour is lost for every 2 cigarettes that you smoke; the average smoker has 20 cigarettes a day and this eventually adds up to a total of 10 years off your expected lifespan! It’s okay though; you can make this time back as well, for every half an hour that you run, you add half an hour onto your life!

Casinos make their money by carefully calculating the odds of winning a game and weighting them towards the house. However, people can attempt to fight back and in some situations, can shift the odds back towards them, if only by less than 1%. One technique that is used in Blackjack is “card counting”; by keeping track of the cards that have been dealt out, the player can estimate what proportion of the cards left in the deck are advantageous to them, and thus estimate what their chances of winning are.

The Monte Carlo method is used to work out the most likely outcome of a situation, by combining information from randomly working out the probabilities of many different versions of that situation. For example, by modeling all of the different predictions for the weather on a certain day, the information can be used to find the most likely forecast. This method was originally used in the development of the atomic bomb, to predict exactly when nuclear fission would occur.

Although scientists have done everything that they can to try and predict what will happen in every situation and what we can do to try and change the outcome, nothing can be done about the fact that some things are just down to chance. Although it may seem likely that you will never win the jackpot on the Lottery, there is a 1 in 14 million chance; therefore that one could be you!

Laura Depner

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