They call it chance, or luck, or fate

They call it chance, or luck, or fate.

That’s not right.

The proper name, the name that describes it and gives you power over it, is different.

The name comes from Latin, like so many names do; the old Latins weren’t great inventors, but they firmly believed every thing should have a place and a name.

So, the name comes from Latin: from a root that means “that which you can show to be true”. (The old Latins were all for names, but occasionally not so good in thinking up colorful ones.)

The word then drifted down the river of time to the French — and like most things, the word no doubt sounded much more mysterious and exciting in French.

From there the word came to English some five centuries ago: the proper name for the things men and women, children and grown-ups, alike call chance, or luck, or fate. But the proper name, the name that describes it and gives you power over it, is PROBABILITY.

I agree; it is a less glamorous name than you expected. But sometimes power is best hidden, like Poe’s letter, in a place so commonplace no-one will look there. And people seldom look at probabilists and other mathematicians, thinking them dull and uninteresting folk. (And to some degree this is actually true.)

If you tossed a die once, you might or might not get a six. If you tossed six dice at once, it seems hardly likely that you might get six sixes. And if you had a bag full of dice, a bag with a thousand six-sided dice in it, and you threw all those dice at once — maybe with the help of some mechanical contrivance — well, getting all sixes seems impossible.

And this is where this thing called probability comes in. It is a mathematical science, an art of juggling numbers, a way of asking the right kind of questions to get the all the answers you can. Generally speaking, one toss in six will get a six if you toss one die. This does not mean you can throw a die six times and trust you will get one six, no more and no less; no, probability is not some silly art of divination, and it just says that if you keep throwing that dice and count your throws and sixes, there will tend to be six times as many throws as there are sixes.

So: one six for every six throws, on the average. This is easy, and things do not get much more difficult if you have more dice; messy, maybe, and alien, sure; but not very much more difficult. (And, as I do not wish to agitate you too much, I will only say the numbers and not how I got them; but believe me, they are not all that difficult to find. Most of the difficult things in mathematics are made up by mathematicians so people will pay them lots of money to do all those difficult-looking things; if you decide to learn mathematics they will take you as one of their own and teach the secrets the easiest way they can.)

Any probabilist or mathematician could, after harrumphing and writing down a few lines of numbers, tell you that six dice come down all sixes something like once for every forty-six thousand, six hundred and fifty-six times you toss those six dice. (This is the way probabilists talk: they aren’t seers and don’t pretend they know what will happen; they only say that this or that is so-and-so likely; or will tend to happening once every so many times if you do it again and again.)

Now, numbers this big tend to come and bite you and make you look silly if you aren’t careful. That big number — uh, forty-six thousand, six hundred and fifty-six — sounds big, but really isn’t. A city with so many people in it would be barely a city at all; indeed, you could easily find a little city so big, and go lending your six dice to every person it in, asking each to throw those six dice; and just as probabilists say, you would most probably see six sixes hitting a table once somewhere along the way. (Or maybe you wouldn’t see six sixes at all, or see them twice, or even thrice — probability is a difficult thing because it doesn’t tell you what will happen, for certain, but only what is likely to happen, and what is not. For example, a probabilist would tell you that if every single six-toss came down all sixes, it would be so monstrously unlikely that you’d better pinch yourself and see if the signposts said “Welcome to Dice-Cheater City, population 46 656”.)

Now, here’s a trick, a tasty apple from the tree of probability. Think up something improbable — like something grisly, like falling off a plane when it’s up there, five kilometers up (that’s three miles up, straight up) and falling, and falling, and hitting the ground and landing alive instead of going all thud and splat. That’s monstrously unlikely, right? No book would try telling such a tale; no movie would show such a thing as the audience would laugh and say “That is just too much!”

Well, the thing to remember, the power of this thing that isn’t chance or luck or fate but instead the one thing they truly are, and that explains them, is that if it just barely can happen — be it one in a million, or one in ten million, or one in a billion — it will happen if you go through enough tries, enough trials, enough people. In this case, enough people falling off planes for various reasons, usually unfortunate accidents. And thus I can give you not only one, but four people that have fallen from planes, without wings, without parachutes, fallen and fallen, down to the ground, and lived to tell the tale: Vesna Vulovic, and Nicholas Alkemade, and Alan Magee, and I.M. Chisov.

Those weren’t chance or luck or fate: just a reminder that eventually things align even in very improbable ways: winds and trees and snow and ravines and glass ceilings, and then that which has been a disaster a million times can succeed on the millionth-and-first try. There’s no way to be that millionth-and-first person, so don’t go jumping off planes, you; but it is a kind of power and prescience to know that there are, and will be, someone like that, and then more, if you just wait long enough, no matter how unlikely the thing is. (Just don’t wait for something that is actually impossible to happen; there won’t be no end to that.)

And then when others cry out that some improbable thing was chance, or luck, or fate, you can smile to yourself and say: “No, it was probability, and that explains it.”

* * *

Oh, and what about the bag with thousand dice in it, and tossing those and getting nothing but sixes? Well, it turns out that mere thirteen dice would be so many that if you went through every single person alive, India and China and all, would might get one that happened to throw those thirteen dice into all sixes. With fourteen, you most probably wouldn’t find a single person like that. With fifteen — well, you know.

With one thousand dice, even if you got every single person on Earth throwing bags of thousand dice, over and over again, each by themselves, day and night, every single day and night, they would most probably all die of hurting wrists and old age before any would throw a thousand sixes at once. Even the number — one-in-something — is so big there’s no easy way of saying it.

And what does this mean? Well, there are things that eventually happen (like falling off a plane and living), and things that are impossible (like a triangle having four sides all of a sudden); but you shouldn’t forget that some things (like the thousand dice all coming up sixes), though they will eventually happen, are so very unlikely that you can call them impossible and not worry about them.

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