UC Berkeley News


Cal Day gambolers can wager with statistics prof

| 31 March 2004


What's the chance that the same person will win the lottery twice? Is there a dependable way to beat the house in Vegas? These questions fall into the domain of statistics and probability, a subject that statistics professor Deborah Nolan acknowledges most people write off as boring.

But on this year’s Cal Day, Nolan — along with a cadre of postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads — will unravel a variety of interesting and amusing statistical mysteries in a session called "Coincidences, Current Events, and Gambling," to be held in Evans Hall lobby between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. that Saturday, April 17.

Each visitor will receive $20 worth of poker chips — not redeemable for cash, by the way — and be encouraged to test a favorite gambling strategy on a roulette wheel. During the day Nolan will plot results on a big chart to see how everyone collectively fares. "There might be some individuals who win," she predicts, "but the casino typically makes money hand over fist."

Meanwhile, to demonstrate the likelihood of coincidence and the different ways statistics play out among a number of people, visitors will mark their birthdays on a big calendar. Nolan says that we are typically surprised and pleased by the coincidence of finding someone with our birthday; after all, the chance of any individual doing so is only about 5 percent in a group of 23 people. But the statistician looks at the coincidence a bit differently. "It's not unusual to see two common birthdays in a group of 23 people," Nolan says. The odds of that are closer to 50/50.

"It's human nature to look for meaning and connections in our lives," explains Nolan. "When we find such a connection, we feel special and want to think it's meaningful. Statisticians," she says, "see the world from a broader perspective."

For an equally broad perspective on all the Berkeley campus affords, make plans to attend this year's Cal Day on Saturday, April 17, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. More than 350 events are scheduled. For information, visit berkeley.edu/calday/.