Chance | Edited by Michael Brooks

Kernel Deb reviews and gets thoroughly absorbed in CHANCE: THE SCIENCE AND SECRETS OF LUCK, RANDOMNESS AND PROBABILITY edited by Michael Brooks. A collection of articles from New Scientist magazine that explores the central theme of CHANCE in every aspect of the word. Kernel Deb goes into in depth below, this one intrigues me, will have to have a read myself, anything to help me win lotto!! CHANCE is out now from the fine folks at Allen & Unwin Book Publishers, you will have to track this one down at a good bookstore on via online outlets as Allen & Unwin is out of stock. Enjoy another splendid review from Kernel Deb…….all the best……JK.


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Science is full of tales of answers found in unexpected places, but sometimes apparent chance effects arise not because the universe is unpredictable but because human ignorance or another limitation is in play. As Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man wrote “All nature is but art, unknown to thee/ All chance, direction which thou canst see/ All discord, harmony not understood”. This insight provides the springboard for this collection of essays on the theme of CHANCE: THE SCIENCE AND SECRETS OF LUCK, RANDOMNESS AND PROBABILITY, edited by Michael Brooks from the best-selling New Scientist Series.

The New Scientist is a weekly British magazine dedicated to popular science and technology. In recent years New Scientist has begun to publish themed anthologies compiled from their archived articles. The previous collection NOTHING was a best seller, and it a safe bet to assume that CHANCE is likely to appeal to the same inquisitive audience as its predecessor. The contributing authors include software engineers, freelance science writers, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, biochemists, psychologists, researchers and journalists so there is a gamut of topic covered: from the differences between lucky and unlucky people, the randomness of the Rock Paper Scissors Game, the mathematics of lottery odds, serendipitous scientific discoveries, to the random mutations that contribute to genetic evolution.

THE LUCK FACTOR looks at the academic research on luck. Research suggests that lucky people are more observant than unlucky people. This allows them to see opportunities, and to be more open to new experiences compared with unlucky people. These tendencies help lucky people maximise and capitalise on opportunities which in turn allows them to be more optimistic about their futures. The good news is that teaching people to focus on the positive aspects of their lives, connecting with others and having a more relaxed attitude may enhance health, happiness and luck.


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GO CRAZY, discusses the skill, not luck, employed by competitors in the Rock Paper Scissors World Championship. The human brain naturally attempts to find patterns and order in randomness. In Rock Paper Scissors this is counterproductive because projecting a pattern on an opponent, or having a pattern of one’s own, is equally disastrous. Counterintuitively, completely random computer bot-players fail because they do not adapt to the unintentional patterns in their opponents. The human champions are those that manage the dual challenge of spotting the unintentional patterns of their opponents, whilst remaining random themselves. The strategies, online-website-trainers, and short cuts to statistically enhance your chance of winning Rock Paper Scissors makes for interesting reading.

THE CHIPS ARE DOWN explores roulette, blackjack, arbitrage, stopping theory and lotteries. There are many gems in this section, not least that people are their own worst enemies when it comes to gambling because their natural tendency to find patterns is counterproductive. For example analyses of lottery entries shows that people tend to pick “lucky 7” more often than any other number, numbers up to 31 more often due to the “the birthday effect”, as well as numbers in the centre of the form, and numbers along diagonals. Unfortunately given that every combination of lottery numbers has exactly the same odds of coming up, avoiding these patterns will not help you win the lottery. But on the upside, picking unpopular numbers will allow you to maximise your winnings because if your numbers come up, fewer people will have chosen similar numbers to you.

Whilst everyone knows the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” it is less well known that the corollary “the invention of a product itself can be the mother of necessity” can also be true. THE PREPARED MIND uncovers the fact that incidental discoveries can be fortuitous. Examples include the accidental discovery of a very weak adhesive which resulted in the invention of Post-It Notes; Teflon which was first detected as a slippery coating on a container by DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett, who was working on refrigerator coolants; and the oncology drug Cisplatin which was developed after scientist Barnett Rosenberg, who was studying the effect of electricity on bacteria, found that the platinum electrode by-product, cisplatin, was halting cellular division. Thus it seems Lois Pasteur was right when he contended that “Chance favours the prepared mind”.


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A CHANCE AT LIFE argues that at the genetic level mutations in natural systems are chance events. Each mutation is however subject to natural selection so only mutations that confer a survival advantage persist. Nature randomly generates changes and then pragmatically prunes the outcomes. LUCKY YOU provides some specific examples of sequential genetic mutation which are postulated to have contributed to the transformation of the great apes into Homo sapiens including: a mutation that reduced ape jaw strength that allowed our cranium to grow larger; a mutation that enhanced brain glucose utilisation which allowed our brain to grow bigger; and a mutation that allowed humans to learn speech. What is mind blowing is that of the estimated 15 million random mutations only 10000 of these changes were to gene sequences subject to natural selection.

THE ARBITRARY APE posits that within the macroscopic social biology sphere being unpredictable confers a survival advantage to prey eluding predators. Similarly, humans that use unexpected and random elements to avoid being taken advantage of by others, as a source of creative flair, or to brainstorm unique solutions to problems, are more likely to be successful than their predictable peers. On a completely different note, LET’S GET LOST speculates that human happiness is enhanced by unanticipated but positive occurrences.

I could go on and on about various articles within the CHANCE collection, because there is much pleasure to be had learning about Bedford’s Law and its application to fraud, Bayesian Networks, the chaotic subatomic universe, the strange mathematics of chance, and Levy Flight, but if I wrote about every article in this book this review would be overwritten. Suffice to say there is much to enjoy.

CHANCE is not a quick read. Not every topic will appeal to all readers and whilst each topic is well explained, some of the hypotheses require mental effort for complete understanding. Nevertheless I think it is perfect for anyone with a curious mind because it is filled with fascinating, thought provoking, and unexpected information.


4 and a Half Pops


Deborah is a lifelong lover of books, food, TV and film with a penchant for schlock horror, superheroes, science fiction, black comedy and Asian martial arts stars. She would prefer to skydive than couch surf and is a fan of zombie walks. She can be found plugged into podcasts on long walks with her dog.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.