May 11, 2004

They Come One to A Million

From the fascinating site for the game MOOT (Tough questions about the nuances of the English language) comes this curious question: Trying to add some precision to its meaning, Mathematician J.E. Littlewood defined it as "an event that has special significance when it occurs, but occurs with a probability of one in a million."; what word is it?"

Click below for answer and wonderful Freeman Dyson quote:

Answer: miracle

According to physicist Freeman Dyson:

"The paradoxical feature of the laws of probability is that they make unlikely events happen unexpectedly often.

A simple way to state the paradox is Littlewood's Law of Miracles. Littlewood was a famous mathematician who was teaching at Cambridge University when I was a student. Being a professional mathematician, he defined miracles precisely before stating his law about them.

He defined a miracle as an event that has special significance when it occurs, but occurs with a probability of one in a million. This definition agrees with our common-sense understanding of the word miracle.

Littlewood's Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person's life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month.

The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty thousand per day, or about a million per month.

With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect about one miracle to happen, on the average, every month."

[Note: The above passage was taken from The New York Review of Books (Freeman Dyson reviewing Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, Other Pseudoscience by Georges Charpak and Henri Broch)

You can read the review at:

Posted by Vanderleun at May 11, 2004 10:24 AM
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Littlewood was also a highly rated chess player, an International Master who was at one time regarded as a future world champion. He stopped playing fairly young, for no reason I can discover.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at May 11, 2004 6:04 AM