What is chance?
What tools can mathematicians use to describe and even make use of it?
The exhibition Make Your Bets! When Maths Steps In takes an entertaining, interactive approach to randomness, providing visitors with a better grasp of this supremely useful concept.
The exhibition examines the role of chance, probability and chaos in everyday life, games, culture and even cryptography.
The idea of chance has fascinated humanity since time out of mind, but serious study of it only began quite late on in the history of mathematics. Naturally. What could genuinely be said about events which seemed inherently impossible to predict? Moreover, in many cultures – ancient or not – chance has been associated with magic and gods, factors that are difficult to integrate in a rational approach.
Yet for nearly two centuries now, the idea of chance has played a key role in many areas of scientific
research. Tools developed by mathematicians have become essential to all scientists, since they can be used to make predictions that will almost certainly prove accurate.
So how can we calculate the probability of an event occurring? How can we mine data from a large number of random events? What do we mean when we refer to ‘chance’?
The largest section of the exhibition is devoted to probability. How is it calculated? In the simplest situations, the answer is quite intuitive: we only have to calculate the number of ‘positive’ cases and divide it by the number of possible cases. So the calculation of such probabilities involves counting all positive cases precisely.
Yet the calculation of probabilities can bring surprises. Some very likely coincidences or even certainties seem extraordinary, while lotteries –with their mathematically infinitesimal chance of winning– continue to be remarkably successful! To explain probability, the exhibition presents dice used in an unexpected way, a game of mini-Monopoly, an application that can decipher a coded message and a lottery in which there is 1 chance in 14 million of choosing the right 6 numbers from a set of 49!