Class Warfare Blog

October 23, 2018

Gosh, What are the Odds?

Filed under: History,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:32 am
Tags: , , , ,

TV shows like Ancient Aliens often point to things that seem very, very unlikely to have happened naturally and claim that help must have been had from aliens. They have this claim in common with creationists who make the same argument except with the help coming from supernatural beings, yet still could have been aliens.

I am reminded that events which most people consider to be very, very unlikely … happen all of the time. What triggered this topic is the fact that today is my birthday. It is also Mole Day. Here is how Scientific American is celebrating this holiday:

Holy Moley, It’s 6.02 x 1023 Day!
Let’s celebrate our chemistry! Or rather, chemistry’s favorite unit of measurement.
From 6:02 a.m. through 6:02 p.m., we’re commemorating Avogadro’s Number.

Avogadro’s number was not found by Avogadro, it was named to commemorate his contributions to chemistry (as slight as they were). His number is the basis for a unit of amount in chemistry, the mole (symbol mol … hardly worth the contraction effort). This number of molecules of any chemical is said to be one mole of that chemical, so it is a quantity representing an amount and a number of molecules simultaneously, which is very handy for chemists as molecules seem to interact in simple whole number ratios.

So, how is this any indication of the probability of an event occurring? Well, I was born, just after 6 AM on the morning of October 23, 1946. (I share this birthday with the planet Earth, according to Bishop Ussher.) So, 6:02 AM, 10th month, 23rd day … 6.02 x 1023! Uh and … ? Well, when I chose a profession, it just so happened to be that of chemistry professor. Wow! What is the likelihood of that happening? Was there something in the stars, guiding my path toward a career? Were aliens involved? Were gods? Surely my path was preordained by something spiritual/ghostial!

What is actually involved is … attention. If one is a chemistry professor, and not born on Mole Day, then we pay that no attention. But there are many, many chemistry professors and teachers, more than the 365 days in a year, so on any particular day of the year, many chemistry people are sharing a birthday. (I share my birthday with Gilbert Newton Lewis, a very prominent U.S. chemist, for example.) Of the people born on October 23rd, there have to be some born right around 6 AM or 6 PM and those of us who were, attend to that fact, once it is brought to our attention.

Many, many improbable things happen every day. One person won a major European lottery twice in a row! (What are the odds?) A creationist asked one time how likely it would be for a molecule of DNA to be created from chance (a silly reach to discredit the role of random mutations in evolution theory). The number he came up with was astronomical. In a quick calculation, I pointed out that if the atoms making up the molecule were selected at the rate at which molecules collide, then the DNA molecule sequence would occur more than a million times per second. Yes, it is an unlikely event … but if the number of participants is large or the process is very fast, that thing will happen and happen frequently.

So, I wish all of my fellow chemists and chemistry professors born on Mole Day (the thousands upon thousands of you) a very happy celebration of your birth day! And, you know what it means, don’t you?

13 Comments »

  1. A touch of humour always lightens the load. The interesting thing about probability is everything that actually happens is very improbable. I draw the following cards from a pack say ten of clubs , three of hearts and king of spades and I have just done something very unlikely about one in 125,000 . It would seem I’m quite magic since I’m doing the highly unlikely all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by kersten — October 23, 2018 @ 8:55 am | Reply

    • Well, the odds of drawing three cards out of a 52 card deck is exactly 100%. If you pull three cards, you will get three cards. Whether your three card sequence comes out again is less likely. I used to tease my students with the following puzzle: taking two brand new decks of cards, and thoroughly shuffling one, gives you two nonidentical decks. Which one is more highly ordered? They always would say the unshuffled one, but they are equivalent in order (each has a clearly defined order and it would take the same amount of energy to turn Deck A into a duplicate of deck B and vice-versa).

      So, in your case, you attributed a low probability of pulling those three cards from the deck, but actually the probability is the same as pulling any other set of three cards from the deck and, if you do not specify the three in advance, the probability is 100% (you pulled three cards and you got three cards). Probability is a bother!

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 6, 2018 @ 1:13 pm | Reply

      • Very neatly put and I enjoyed your example about the two decks. I remember struggling with Richard Dawkins ‘ Blind Watchmaker ‘ which contains quite a lot of probability regarding abiogenesis , I felt a bit better when Mr Dawkins mentioned he asked a friend who was a mathematician.

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        Comment by kersten — November 6, 2018 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

        • :o) A friend who is a mathematician is a friend indeed!

          On Tue, Nov 6, 2018 at 2:07 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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          Comment by Steve Ruis — November 7, 2018 @ 9:03 am | Reply

  2. Happy birthday
    We do observe a lot of statistically unlikely events happening all the time

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Jonathan — October 23, 2018 @ 9:27 am | Reply

  3. Happy birthday Mr. President. My you enjoy good health for many years more.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Walter Kronkat — October 23, 2018 @ 2:50 pm | Reply

    • Thang yooo, thang yoooou very mucch!

      On Tue, Oct 23, 2018 at 2:50 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 23, 2018 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

  4. Forgot to mention I was a chemistry major until I felt this odd draft coming for me so I enlisted. I remember Avogadro and his number from those long gone days.

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    Comment by Walter Kronkat — October 23, 2018 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

    • I felt that same draft, although I was in grad school at the time. I had a draft number of 196, so I thought my odds were good, so I saluted everything that moved when I had my pre-induction physical/test. They stopped the draft just before my number was up. Whew! I was sure I would do something stupid and not only get myself killed but a lot of others, too, so I was grateful that I did not serve under those circumstances.

      On Tue, Oct 23, 2018 at 2:55 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Liked by 2 people

      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 23, 2018 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

  5. I never got any number. O did get a letter asking me to be downtown Lost Angeles on a set day and time for a preinduction physical. Asked the USMC recruiter what that meant. He said it was to decide if I was healthy enough to be drafted. I beat the draft by enlisting. I wasn’t set on the going to war mess, just figured it was my ultimate chance to make it or not on my own, no backstop available, make it or wash out. Had I kept going to school, even across country, the option to go home existed, same with working in some state hundreds of miles from Dads’ house. In the Marines, there was no, quit and go home option. I despise war, having seen it all too close and personal. Every damn fool war this country has been in since 1945 were useless wars of choice. They only made very rich folks ever more richer. Oh, I still believe that if ‘saint’ Woodrow, the rat bastard had lived up to his re-election slogan “He kept us out of war”, there would have been no need for WW2 as before that racist rat turd got our troops in that meat grinder, the opposing sides were supposedly negotiating a peace treaty. Yes, WW1 almost ended in a draw but for ‘saint’ Woodrow. At least that is what I know and have read some years back. If I’m wrong, please do correct me. I promise I won’t bite, just still enjoy learning.

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    Comment by Walter Kronkat — October 23, 2018 @ 11:12 pm | Reply

    • My best friend had a lottery number of … five. He went and joined the Marines shortly thereafter. he came home from Vietnam, but his hearing didn’t make it back with him (he was an artillery officer). He never wanted to talk about his experiences, with the exception of one or two funny stories. I understand why.

      You are oh so right about “Woodrow.” But for some strange reason, Germany provoked our participation in WW1 by attacking “neutral” shipping (including ours), when they knew it would lead to our entering the war. Most of “the people,” especially the Socialist Party were against participation in that war, so funding it was a problem. Progressives and socialists took advantage of the situation to get the rich to pay for their war as they were the only one’s profiting from it.

      On Tue, Oct 23, 2018 at 11:12 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 24, 2018 @ 9:24 am | Reply

  6. Happy improbable birthday!
    My example of “improbable everyday event” is this: take a roll of quarters, draw a number on each of them, throw them up in the air and see how they fall on the floor. The probability that these 40 quarters would landed, each numbered quarter heads or tail, exactly the way they did, is less than 1 out of a trillion – so, clearly, either aliens or God (or both) had something to do with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by List of X — October 26, 2018 @ 12:29 pm | Reply

    • :o)

      On Fri, Oct 26, 2018 at 12:29 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

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      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 26, 2018 @ 12:31 pm | Reply


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