Saturday, May 23, 2009

Leonard Mlodinow

I was once on a plane that experienced so much turbulence that when I looked out the window, the wings seemed to flap up and down like a bird’s. I noticed, also, that the woman in the window seat next to me looked pale and terrified. Personally, I took comfort in knowing how many miles planes fly through heavy turbulence without any problems at all. So I explained to the woman how planes were designed to withstand such conditions, and told her the slim odds of anything bad happening. When I finished, she turned away and reached for the barf bag.

Some people take solace in an understanding of their environment, others don’t. For me, an understanding of the role played by chance has taught me that one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at-bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized. As someone who has taken risks in life I find it a comfort to know that even a coin weighted toward failure will sometimes land on success. Or, as I.B.M. pioneer Thomas Watson said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”

(, "What Are The Odds?" May 22, 2009. Leonard Mlodinow teaches randomness to future experimenters at Caltech. His books include “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” and “Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace.”)