Saturday, 5 June 2010

Probability and Life

It’s a while since I did a vaguely scientific entry but a few things have occurred this week. Firstly the Reith Lectures have started: Sir Martin Rees’s first lecture suggested that challenges facing science in the 21st century are much more profound than previously: GM foods, stem-cell research and so on present many ethical problems; scientific and engineering developments in the past were much simpler and their use much more obvious – although I guess the Manhatten Project would fall into the modern category. Then last night I was idly watching a program about design. A claim on this is that things as we know them are being subsumed into generic electronics: TVs, radios, music players, telephones, computers, cameras, books all had their own identity. Now they are all merging into one basic format where the physical design is minimal and the user interface is key. What’s next?

The next event was a series of phone calls on Friday. Probability theory is fascinating and often yields difficult-to-understand results. Have you heard the birthday conundrum? The chance of two people in a group of 23 having the same birthday is greater than 50%. So next time you’re in a cocktail party, ask around! Another strange probability fact is that the most likely time for a truly random event to occur is immediately following the previous occurrence of such an event. So don’t feel at ease flying immediately after a crash; and if air crashes occur at regular intervals you should suspect some intervention rather than random occurrences. I had a good example of this with phone calls on Friday. As some of you know, we divert our home phone to my mobile so calls go to the mobile if we don’t answer or if the home phone is in use. I think the phone calls we receive are random – although the people who try to fix my computer or award me a cruise seem to call at regular intervals! Twice on Friday I received a call on my mobile while talking to someone on my home phone – I think this proves that the calls are random and that probability theory is correct!

The last scientific reminder this week was one of the series of 2-minute talks on Radio 4. Brian Eno described the Game of Life which was invented by mathematician John Conway in 1970. I had forgotten this but it reminded me of long discussions and fascination with work colleagues when it came out in the Scientific American. 1970 was well before personal computers and the internet so it was quite difficult to play at the time but these days it’s very simple – have a play here.

The Reith Lectures can be heard here.

No comments: