Are We Lucky?

“I’d rather be lucky than smart!” This hackneyed adage is usually delivered sarcastically, in response to someone who just won the lottery, got the big promotion, or left the casino with a pile of cash. The implication is that, if one is lucky, working hard and taking risks is unnecessary. Just wait, and good fortune will come along. If one is unlucky, then industry and risk-taking is all for naught. It’s a philosophy that can lead to nihilism and despair quite quickly.

So, what is luck? It is undeniable that good things seem to happen for no perceivable reason, as do adverse events. For millennia, people have attributed such things to supernatural causes, and have attempted to control them by propitiation of gods, or by seeking talismans that will grant them that nebulous quality called luck. Others believe that the universe is fundamentally random, and that luck is largely a matter of perception. Of course, it’s easier to take the latter view if one is lucky…

The concept of luck has been a fruitful subject for science fiction. Larry Niven explored it in his Known Space stories, in which an alien race actually tried to breed lucky humans by providing incentives for lucky people to mate with each other. J.K. Rowling, the fantastically successful author of the Harry Potter novels, created a magical potion that conferred good fortune on the imbiber, leading one to wonder if she consumed some herself.

A good definition of luck is the occurrence of a preponderance of improbable events over a short time frame  ̵  whether that luck is good or bad is a value judgment based on the observer’s perceptions. This definition assumes that the events in question are statistically independent, that is, the occurrence of one event does not affect the probability of the occurrence of a subsequent event. Misperception of statistical independence can lead to the Gambler’s Fallacy, which has caused much misery over the ages.

However, a theorem called the Law of Large Numbers exists in probability theory. Simply stated, it says that, given a very large numbers of trials, the average of the observed occurrences of a particular result approaches the expected value of those occurrences. Consider an event with a probability of occurrence of one in a million. This means, that in one million observations, you should, on average, observe the event one time. The expected value in this case is one. Is it possible that event will not be observed at all? Certainly! It is also possible that the event will be observed more than once. As the number of observations increases, so does the expected value. If the number of observations is infinite, the expected value becomes a certainty.

The geologist David Waltham has written a book called Lucky Planet, which will be published later this year. The thesis of Lucky Planet is that the earth, due to a highly improbable series of weather patterns, experienced conditions amenable to the genesis of intelligent life. This supports the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which is a possible explanation of why we have not observed any other intelligent life in our universe.

In 2009, NASA deployed the Kepler telescope, whose mission was to search for extrasolar planets in the habitable zone of their parent solar system. To date, NASA scientists have confirmed 961 planets discovered by Kepler, and have extrapolated those results to estimate that the number of earthlike planets in the Milky Way galaxy is likely tens of billions. Estimates of the number of galaxies in the observable universe run into the hundreds of billions.

So, while the earth may indeed be a lucky planet, it doesn’t seem likely we’re alone in the universe. Do the math.

Roulette wheel

Håkan Dahlström / Foter / CC BY

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One Response to Are We Lucky?

  1. Stephen Sutcliffe says:

    But as John Gribben argues in his great book “The Reason Why” humans probably represent the only occurence of an advanced technological civilisation in the whole of our galaxy, and since the distances to other galaxies are so huge, we are effectively alone in the universe and we might as well get used to the idea. In this sense the Earth is a very special place in the universe.

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