Sunday, May 24, 2009


An interview with Leonard Mlodinow who teaches randomness and probability at California Institute of Technology... 

Assuming one is correct about the proper way to “live right” — and I’m not convinced that a straight vegetarian diet is the healthiest — it is possible to decrease the odds of bad outcomes, but that doesn’t mean they won’t occur. Anything that is possible eventually will occur, which means that some healthy-living people will get cancer, and some chain smokers won’t. I once read a story about a church group that was supposed to meet at a certain time. Ten minutes after the appointed time, due to a gas leak, the church blew up. If they had not showed up late, all 10 would have been killed. Some see that as evidence that God was watching over them. Others might conclude that you should always show up to church late. All I learn from that is that it is a big country, and if you ask around enough, you’ll hear some pretty improbable stories.
Another example, which I analyze in “The Drunkard’s Walk,” is the time Roger Maris, a very good but not great player, broke Babe Ruth’s beloved record, hitting 61 home runs in 1961. Maris had never came close to that output before, nor did he after. What happened? We all know that players will hit a few more home runs than usual in some years, and a few less in others. But the mathematics of chance also predicts that some years they’ll hit a lot more, and some years a lot less. Those large fluctuations are rare, and wouldn’t be record-breaking for most players, in any case. But the historical statistics of baseball show that there were enough players with excellent, but sub-Ruthian, ability that over the years that it was probable that, by chance alone, one of them would have a single standout year in which they tie or break Ruth’s record. In fact, every stand-out record in any sport that has ever been analyzed has always been found to be consistent with the patterns produced by random fluctuations. Performance over time comes mainly from talent and practice. But achievements that stand out from an athlete’s usual performance — hot streaks or record years — happen with patterns that match the patterns of chance. Just wait long enough, and strange things will happen.

... I find that predicting the course of our lives is like predicting the weather. You might be able to predict your future in the short term, but the longer you look ahead, the less likely you are to be correct. In my own life, many things that seemed to be very bad at first actually had good consequences. For example, just as I had begun making a living writing in Hollywood many years ago, the Writer’s Guild called a strike. I thought it was awful for my fledgling career, not to mention financially ruinous. But as it turned out, the strike gave busy producers a chance to catch up on their reading, and the day the strike ended I got a call from the show runner at “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” who said he read a “McGyver” script of mine he had found lying around, loved it, and wanted to hire me on the show’s writing staff. It was a plum job and a boost to my career, and it would have never happened if not for the strike. So I try to relax, and work on making the best of whatever develops, rather than worrying about how awful it is.

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