Discovering the Odds

Over the centuries, visionary mathematicians laid the foundation for how we view life’s gambles

Nicolaus Copernicus
Nicolaus Copernicus Wikimedia Commons

Whizzing along a highway in our cars or jetting across the continent, it's easy to appreciate how these two inventions have changed how we live. It is more difficult to measure the impact of the nonmaterial, intellectual revolutions in science over the centuries — those brought about by Copernicus, Darwin and others.

But in the 17th century, one little-recognized revolution in math and science would eventually alter profoundly the dynamics of our daily lives. It began when Frenchman Blaise Pascal looked at games of chance and determined that mathematical principle — and not just the bettor's hunch — could be applied to figure precisely the odds of winning.

Smithsonian editor John F. Ross, author of The Polar Bear Strategy: Reflections on Risk in Modern Life (Perseus Books), from which this article is excerpted, guides us through the stories and lives of the early thinkers who discovered the tools we use today to evaluate risk. Consider English haberdasher John Graunt: by studying London's mortality rates, Graunt revealed how patterns of sickness suggest links between illness and certain activities, diets or lifestyles. Huguenot refugee Abraham de Moivre, with his discovery of the bell curve, showed us the power of sampling, or determining patterns in a population by examining a few individuals. In the 19th century, Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, gave us a way to measure the degrees of variability with his groundbreaking work in correlation.

The cumulative legacy of these individuals and others would eventually become probability theory. These observations and the discoveries following would give us the ability to view the world in terms of a rich range of consequences. Probability theory would change the way we regard risk, uncertainty, decision making and our ability to influence the course of future events.