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Probability & Randomness

Date: 05-09-09
Host: Ian Punnett
Guests: Leonard Mlodinow, Tracy Twyman

Physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow discussed his exploration into probability and randomness and showed how our lives are more shaped by chance than some may expect. Detailing his findings, he explained, "I'm not saying that the world is completely random, I'm saying that randomness is a component that we have to recognize when extraordinary events happen." Mlodinow defined random events as situations where "you don't know the result and, at best, you can only assign a probability." Viewed through this prism and then modeled via mathematics, one can strip much of the mystique away from otherwise unbelievable achievements.

He described how people often end up being mistaken as having a higher level of skill in their particular field when they accomplish seemingly impossible tasks that are, in actuality, mathematically probable to occur at some point. In turn, when that success diminishes as statistical normalcy returns, they are looked at as having "lost their touch." According to him, such instances of this misconception at work are the rise and fall of Hollywood movie executives tasked with picking hit films and sport stars said to have a "hot hand." To exemplify this, Mlodinow talked about how mathematical models show that the famed baseball records of such stars as Roger Maris and Joe DiMaggio were merely bound to happen and that the holders of the records merely had the right combination of skill and luck.

Mlodinow mused that the realization that randomness is at work when it comes to one's success is actually a positive concept. "It's good to know that when you fail it doesn't mean you're a failure. ... Even something with a good chance of success will fail," he observed. To that end, he also pointed out that bestselling novels like the first Harry Potter book, A Time to Kill, and The Firm were all turned down by publishers numerous times. As such, he put forth a more inspiring perspective on probability: "even if your chances of success is tiny, if you keep trying, you're gonna make it."

The Magic of Money

Appearing during the first hour, author and researcher Tracy Twyman talked about the magic behind money and how it may be used to recover from the present financial crisis. She explained how when the original paper dollar bill was introduced, it was festooned with symbols in order to reassure people of its value since it was a replacement for gold-backed money. Twyman suggested that putting just a small amount of gold backing to our current paper money "could actually re-ignite the magic and make people believe in the dollar again, hopefully." A similar method of currency has already begun in China, she said, which has introduced money backed by that nation's copper reserves.

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Check out Ian's latest musings and insights at his blog site.

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The recent swine flu scare has scientists re-examining the way germs are spread. When it comes to airborne ailments, doctors have no real idea how much of a disease is contained in a sneeze. Emerging new mathematical models hope to settle the debate over what's more germy: being sprayed with a sneeze or simply touching a contaminated surface. More on the story here.

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