Leading Edge / Winter 2006
What Are the Odds of That?

In his new book, math prof Jeffrey Rosenthal gives us the tools to assess life’s chances

In September, a group of 13 Faculty of Engineering staff members won $1.75 million in the 6/49 lottery – a windfall of more than $134,600 each. Arlene Fillatre, the faculty’s business officer and lottery-pool organizer, also struck lucky with a quarter-million-dollar jackpot in 1992. What are the odds of having Fillatre’s good fortune – just once?

In his new book, Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities, U of T prof and ace statistician Jeffrey S. Rosenthal gives us the mathematical tools to assess life’s odds – whether it’s winning the lotto, being involved in an airplane crash, beating the house at cards or – of course – getting zonked by lightning. He also provides a hefty dose of reality through the “Probability Perspective,” offering real-life examples for comparison – what those odds actually translate into.

You know the chances of winning the 6/49 aren’t good, don’t you? But don’t let us ruin your day. We’ll let Rosenthal do that for you, in this Struck by Lightning excerpt:

“A typical commercial lottery might involve selecting six different numbers between 1 and 49. If your six numbers match those selected, you win (or share) the big jackpot. For such a lottery, the probability is about one chance in 14 million. This is an extremely small probability. To put it in context, you are over 1,000 times more likely to die in a car crash within the year. In fact, you are more likely to die in a car crash on your way to the store to buy your lottery ticket than you are to win the jackpot. Indeed, if you bought one ticket a week, on average, you would win the jackpot less than once every 250,000 years. When picking seven numbers between 1 and 47 [for 7/47], the probability is one chance in 63 million. It may be true that someone is going to win the lottery jackpot this week, but let me assure you: that someone will not be you.”

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