Here’s the challenge: The universe is a profoundly random place, but it is very difficult to talk about probability and statistics without, you know, using math. You see, we made a promise not to use equations (except for E=mc^2).
I suppose that statistics and uncertainty are especially on my mind because of the election next week, and I have an unhealthy addiction to polls. Still, chapter 4 is pretty important to understand the workings of the universe.
Beyond the obvious fact that quantum measurements of, say, the spin of an electron are really, truly random, understanding scientific results requires a statistical mindset. Quite frankly, even if you know how to compute probabilities using distributions and Bayesian priors and all that, it’s still incredibly easy to let your intuition fool you into making the wrong conclusions.
So I’m struggling.
The other thing that’s bothering me about the randomness chapter is that I’m not crazy about the question. Most of the questions have come from actual things that people have asked one of us at a cocktail party, or things that we’ve genuinely puzzled over. In this chapter, the best I could come up with was:
“Does God play dice with the universe?”
Basically, a reworking of Einstein’s famous statement against quantum mechanics that “God doesn’t play dice.” The problem is that this is a yes/no question, and not a why, how, or what question. Even chapter 1, “If I’m traveling at the speed of light, can I see myself in a mirror?” requires a circuitous answer. This doesn’t.
So if anyone has a better fundamental question relating to probability and randomness in physical systems, I’d be very happy to hear it.
I need this chapter. It gives me a chance to discuss (as a digression) why slot machines give such terrible odds. Hint: it’s not just because casinos are greedy.