Today, let's try to predict the future. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
created them.
Well, no one can predict the
future. We can only say what's likely to happen.
That uncertainty has always left us uneasy. I
suspect uneasiness is what kept us from inventing
probability theory until the 1600s.

Today, we take it for granted that the world is
indeterminate, and we work within its fuzziness. We
use laws of probability to write life insurance and
to pull signals out of surrounding noise.

But first we had to change the way we looked at
things. When an English mathematician, Isaac
Todhunter, wrote the history of probability in
1865, he found it'd been created by people
wrestling with two great unpredictables of life --
with dice and death!

When you roll dice, there's only one way to roll a
two or a twelve, but six ways to roll a seven. The
ancients played more complex games -- using three
dice, not just two. Yet they wrote little about the
likelihood of numbers. Dante touched on the dice
question in his Purgatory. But not
'til the 1600s did people begin writing tables of
outcomes in dice and other games. Only then did
mathematicians start formalizing those ideas.

Two people began converting vague feelings about
likelihood into a theory of probability. During the
1650s, Pascal and Fermat wrote to one another. They
went back and forth on questions about gaming. Soon
they were joined by Huygens, Leibnitz, and the
Bernoullis -- then by every great mathematician of
the age.

Johannes Kepler had already warned that processes
like throwing dice are actually determined by laws
of physics. That idea has come back to haunt us in
the 20th century, first with quantum indeterminacy
-- then with deterministic chaos theory. Today we
struggle to understand what's really predictable
and what isn't.

In any case, the most important gambling game is
our own life and death. "Lord, let me know mine end
and the number of my days," said the 17th-century
Book of Common Prayer.

By then we had crude records of mortality and were
trying to make sense of them. In 1692 a scholar
noted that, since one person in 26 died anually,
you could take a random group of 13 people and
wager even money on one death in a given year. Nice
thought!

That was the beginning of a new mathematics, but
it's one we accept only when we choose to. You know
people who smoke cigarettes yet worry about flying
on an airplane. Part of the Texas budget is paid by
people chasing the hopeless hope of winning a
lottery. In fact, state lotteries make a fine way
to tax the vulnerable.

For the last three centuries, dice and death have
touched our intellects and forged the new science
of probabliity. If we accept that science, it
offers some hint of the future -- which otherwise
remains shrouded from our view.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
work.

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