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What are the odds?

Andy Ziccarelli | Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I love numbers. How could anyone not? Numbers are so much more precise than their linguistic counterparts, words. Whereas a word could mean any number of things based on context and tone, numbers will always mean the exact same thing. You can take them at face value.

The other wonderful thing about numbers is their universal nature. There are over 3000 different languages that are spoken in the world today, rendering worldwide communication near impossible without significant translation and effort. However, numbers and mathematics are able to bridge the gap that is created by spoken language. The laws of mathematics, physics and probability apply to every corner of the world, regardless of language.

Perhaps my fondness for math has to do with the way my brain operates. I do not operate in shades of gray, rather my mind tends to see things in terms of black and white. Either things are right or they are wrong. That mindset is probably why I have struggled with literature and composition for most of my life. Writing papers where there is no right or wrong answer never appealed to me, and it didn’t make much sense, either.

I might represent an extreme perspective, but it is amazing to think about just how much of our life is governed by mathematics. The laws of physics apply to everything that we interact with, and they are governing over you this very instant as you are reading this. The next time you go on the Internet, realize that your computer, at its core, is simply transferring a long string of zeros and ones into a medium that we can understand as a user. During your walk to class today, notice how everything around you is laid out in a geometric fashion. Perhaps most interestingly, the idea of uncertainty and probability rules over our daily lives in a way that we do not realize.

In the movie “(500) Days of Summer,” protagonist Tom Hansen falls for his co-worker, Summer Finn. In the end, though (spoiler alert!), their relationship didn’t last and Summer ends up marrying a guy who she happened to meet in a coffee shop as she was eating lunch one day. The narrator remarks, “Coincidence, that’s all anything ever is, nothing more that coincidence.” That might be an overstatement, but it highlights the fact that a lot our lives can be defined in terms of probability and the likelihood of events. There is a very, very small percentage of the population that one would consider as “marriage material.” So what is the probability that one of those people was in the same coffee shop (out of all of the coffee shops in L.A.), at the same time as Summer. Not only that, what are the odds that she is reading a book that he is interested in and that, because of seeing that, he decides to go over and talk to her? The probability of all of those events happening and coming together is very small.

The wonderful thing about life, however, is that it is defined by the extraordinary events, not by the ordinary. We are taught in statistics class that things will randomly fluctuate back and forth around a mean. Sometimes these things are further away from the mean and sometimes they are very close, but everything will eventually tend to approach that average. This is extremely useful for predicting future events from what we know about the past. For math nerds like me, it brings a certain level of order and predictability to a world that is extremely uncertain and full of variables. We think we understand what is going on, or at least what should go on.

But every so often, an event blows up our conventional wisdom and simply defies the odds. The odds tell us that no, you will not meet your future spouse today. But how magical would it be if you did? Notre Dame hadn’t had a snow day in decades, so what were the odds that the school would cancel class a few weeks ago due to snow? How many people grow to be almost 7 feet tall, and still possess the athleticism necessary to play basketball at a high level? Not many, but we have a collection of them on campus, and they are currently residing among the top 10 teams in the country and are gearing up for a deep run into the tournament.

Life can predictable. Things tend to unfold as we expect, and most days come and pass without much of a surprise. Keep your eyes open, though, because you don’t get any warning when things are about to defy the odds and impact you for the rest of your life.

Andy Ziccarelli is a senior majoring in civil engineering. He can be reached at aziccare@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.