Friday, 20 January 2012

What are the odds of that?

At the recently concluded African Gifted Foundation Academy that took place in Kampala, Uganda a brilliant maths teacher from South Africa, Thomas Hagspihl, delivered a talk entitled "Beauty and Elegance in Mathematics".

I have to say it was probably one of the best maths lectures I have ever attended. It made me feel that perhaps I could have been a mathematician after all even though I was pretty average at maths (despite having the nickname "ADDIKO" at school for having scored 104% in an Additional Maths exam once. But that's another story).

What he seemed to be able to do was take quite challenging mathematical concepts and present them in a way that made you feel you grasped what was going on and that left you wanting to know more.

For example, for the first time I got a proper sense of the futility of playing the lottery. Apparently the chance of winning the (UK) lottery jackpot is 14 million to 1.  I hear those words but they didn't mean much to me. I couldn't get my mind around them.

In just a few minutes, Thomas put it in to language that I really understood. He made me realise just how big a million actually is.

Take a matchstick (he said). Let's say that it has a width of a millimeter. So, if we stood a million matchsticks next to each other in a long line, how far would they stretch?

Well as each match is a millimeter wide, a thousand matchsticks equals one meter (because there are a thousand millimeters in one meter. Got it? So far so good).

And a million equals a thousand thousand, right? (1,000 x 1,000 = 1,000,000). So a line of a million matchsticks standing next to each other would stretch out a thousand meters. Or to put it another way, a football pitch is (say) 100 meters, so a thousand meters equals ten football pitches in length.

Right, a million tiny matchsticks standing up, side by side would stretch for ten football pitches. Gosh a "million" really is huge!

But to win the lottery jackpot, the odds are 14 million to 1. So here is what you have to do to win the lottery jackpot. Line up 14 times 10 football pitches worth of matches i.e. 140 football pitches worth of matchsticks. Then put on a blindfold, walk up and down the 140 football pitches of matches and pick ONE. If the ONE that you have picked is the same ONE that the lottery comes up with then hey presto, you have WON THE JACKPOT!!!!

I love it. 


Vanquis said...

Ha! - I love the analogy. One stat about the lottery I heard was that winning was eight times *less* likely than being struck bu lightning.

Debo said...

But there is always the fact that "it could be you". Someone out there is that probability however small and unlikely the odds do produce winners. After all, it is simply a game of chance.

Debo said...

Although the probability is a low one, people do win the lottery jackpot. It is after all a harmless game of chance, if not taken too seriously, which has been known to change winners' lives.