Through the Wormhole s05e02 Episode Script

Is Luck Real?

Luck may be the most mysterious and capricious force in the universe.
But what exactly is luck? Why do some of us win the lottery twice, while others have bad luck for no apparent reason? What's behind strange coincidences and incredible twists of fate? Does random chance decide our destiny? Or is every roll of the dice predetermined by physics? Scientists are trying to beat the odds to prove whether or not luck is real.
Space, time, life itself.
The secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.
How did you get to where you are today? Maybe you struggled and worked hard.
Or maybe you inherited a fortune and never worked a day in your life.
Some things are beyond our control.
Does the universe have a plan for us? Or is our fate the product of random chance? Do we make our own luck? Or does luck make us? When I was growing up, kids would carry a lucky rabbit's foot.
For some reason, we believed these severed paws granted their bearers good fortune.
Did they work? Well, maybe.
I lost that rabbit's foot long ago and my belief in lucky charms.
But perhaps my younger self was onto something.
Go to a casino, and you'll see any number of superstitious rituals performed by players hoping for good luck.
Everyone has a strategy.
First, I do a der voghormia, which is an Armenian prayer, and then I play my son's birth numbers.
The chips all have to face up the same way.
Rituals of good luck develop because we believe that something we do can influence chance.
Sally Linkenauger, a lecturer in psychology at Lancaster University, suspects believing you're lucky actually changes the way you play.
She's conducting a series of experiments to test her hypothesis.
So, what we did is we recruited people who played golf on a regular basis, and we told half of them they were using a putter that had belonged to a famous golfer.
So, this is actually Ben Curtis' putter.
He's a professional golfer who won the British open in 2003.
So, I'm gonna have you take 10 putts and we'll see how you do.
The other golfers hear a different story.
All right, so, this is a really nice putter.
I'd like you to use it to take about 10 putts, and we'll see how you do.
As you'd expect with any random group, some do better than others.
But after dozens of trials, a pattern emerges.
So, once they started putting, the individuals that thought they were using Ben Curtis' putter made about a putt and a half more out of 10 putts than the group that thought they were just using a nice putter.
The golf club isn't lucky.
What's real is the player's belief in whether or not the club is lucky.
Sally suspects this kind of superstition helps people cope with chaotic or stressful situations.
There's kind of a sweet spot in terms of the amount of pressure that you need in order to perform a task most efficiently.
If you have a small amount of pressure, it just means you really don't care, so you don't perform well.
Too much pressure, you freeze up.
So you want to have the perfect, kind of a sweet-spot amount of pressure, and when you're performing a task and people are watching you, people put a lot of pressure on themselves to play well.
But that pressure is less debilitating when a player is holding a lucky putter.
We think that when they're putting, they're offloading some of this pressure that they feel.
This putter is gonna do some of the work for them.
It's not all on them.
And that release in pressure kind of allows them to perform a bit better.
Sally suspects a belief in luck does more than just boost confidence It changes perception.
In her lab, Sally asks the golfers to draw the size of the hole.
So, this is the actual size of the golf hole.
All the golfers think that the hole looks smaller than it actually is.
However, individuals who were using Ben Curtis' putter thought the golf hole looked larger.
On average, the golfers with an ordinary club see the hole as being 11% smaller and harder to hit than the golfers with the so-called "lucky" putter.
Is luck all in the mind? Confidence is a big part of succeeding, I think, in anything that you do, and it is possible that using this club made people more confident in their playing.
I wouldn't necessarily call that luck.
I would call it handling our emotions and handling our anxiety and the pressure that we feel when we are performing these actions in a way that's manageable for us.
But one man thinks believing you are lucky will only get you so far.
A professor of law at Northwestern university and a master statistician, Jay Koehler sees everything as variations on the mean.
The "mean" is another word for the "average.
" A star athlete has good days and bad, but it evens out.
For example, a basketball player might be a 33% 3-point shooter.
If he's very good, he might be a 45% 3-point shooter, but any given day, the player might be shooting more like 50% or might be more like 35%.
Nothing unusual is going on.
The player is just bouncing around his mean.
But what's happening when a player appears to have a hot hand A spectacularly good run of play? Is something supernatural going on? The hot hand is a phenomenon which temporarily elevates his level of play following a string of successes.
You might have a player who makes seven 3-point shots in a row.
And so an observer, and maybe the player himself, might say he's "hot.
" But the question is, is anything extraordinary really going on? Is he now a 70% or 80% or even 90% 3-point shooter? And the answer is no.
Jay ran the numbers on the NBA's best looking for proof of the hot hand.
What we found was that the number of streaks that we observe three, four, five, six, seven shots in a row was pretty much what you'd expect by chance alone, overall.
And we didn't see any evidence of hotness or coldness.
Championship athletes, like these two Northwestern stars, play at a much higher level than ordinary people, and they consistently perform near the peak of their abilities.
Luck isn't much of a factor.
On average, a 50% shooter will make about half of his shots.
To Jay, this is proof that hot streaks are illusions.
Other statisticians have run similar studies on other games and found the same result.
If a player shoots about 50% of his free throws overall, then for him, sinking a free throw is like flipping a coin.
To illustrate some of the points we'd like to make, we're gonna perform a little coin-tossing experiment.
Reggie is flipping the coin and Austin's recording the outcomes.
The flipping seems pretty random, but then Reggie flips seven "heads" in a row.
What are the odds of that? Seven "heads" in a row sounds incredible, but remember, the seven "heads" in a row occurred in a larger context the context of 100 coin flips.
The more you flip, the better the odds of a hot streak.
If we only flip the coin 10 times, the chance of getting seven "heads" in a row would be somewhere around 2%.
But we flipped the coin and the chance of getting seven "heads" in a row out of 100 flips is somewhere between 31% and 32%.
It sounds completely counter intuitive, but lucky streaks are not lucky.
They are statistically likely.
We notice patterns that seem unusual for instance, a star player making four shots in a row.
But we fail to notice he misses the 5th shot, makes the 6th, misses the 7th, makes the 8th and 9th.
These likely streaks can be seen in every performance-based field, from sports to sales to stock trading.
If last year was great, next year may stink.
What appears to be a lucky streak is only a failure to take a big enough sample.
And this, Jay says, is why you shouldn't feel too pleased with your successes or terrible about your failures.
So, even when something is likely to occur, chance may intervene and may cause the opposite to occur.
What's important, Jay thinks, is to keep trying.
One factor that is under our control is how many attempts we make How many times we try to do something How many times we take a shot, how many times we ask the girl out.
We have to be willing to risk failure in order to succeed.
But sometimes, no matter what we do, the universe seems to have other plans.
How do we explain the unexplainable The astonishing coincidences and incredible bits of luck? Is some hidden force guiding our lives? Greek mythology tells of the three fates one goddess spins the thread of life, another measures it, and the third cuts it short.
Maybe that's as good a way as any to explain the twists of fate and random coincidence that rule our lives.
We have to seek meaning or else live by the doctrine "hey, stuff happens.
" On a summer day in 2001, wrote her name and address on a balloon and let it go in her front garden.
The balloon blew 140 miles across England before it landed.
A farmer found it and was surprised to read on it the name of his next-door neighbor Another girl named Laura Buxton.
A lucky coincidence? Or was it meant to be? Professor Tom Griffiths is the director of the computational cognitive science lab at U.
To Tom, the Laura Buxton story illustrates the natural strengths and weaknesses of human reason.
If you ask somebody, "how likely is it that something happens?" That's something that they're not very good at answering.
People are better at solving problems where you've got some data and you have to make a leap that goes beyond those data, and you have to figure it out based on the information that you've got.
Humans are good at hearing a few details about an event and building a story around them.
We are less adept at guessing probabilities the odds of how likely it is an event will occur.
For example, what are the odds of two people having the same birthday? There are Half of 365 is about 183.
So you might think you need 183 people in a room before you have a 50/50 chance that two will have the same birthday.
In fact, you need just 23.
It's a matter of pairs.
With 5 people, you get 10 possible pairs.
With 10, you get 45 pairs.
With 15, you get 105 pairs.
By the time you get there are 253 different ways of pairing two people together, giving you better than even odds two of them will share the same birthday.
Still confused? You're not alone.
There's some psychological research on the birthday problem that suggests that for these kinds of problems, people don't recognize the combinatorial structure This idea that the number of pairs increases in a way that's nonlinear.
So people seem to intuitively expect that that relationship increases linearly, that the number of pairs goes as something like the number of people.
And so, as a consequence, we're surprised, because there are many more opportunities for something to happen than we realize.
Humans see meaningful connections everywhere, but we are the ones who give them meaning.
Given the fact that there are it is inevitable many people will experience weird and uncanny coincidences every day.
With a large enough sample size, just about any possible coincidence will happen.
One definition of a coincidence is a thing that happens with a one-in-a-million probability.
So, if you say an event can happen every second, we're awake for about eight hours a day, it suggests that you probably get about one coincidence every month.
By that definition, the fact that Laura Buxton's balloon found its way across Britain to a second Laura Buxton is a coincidence.
But it's not magic.
Our brains look for patterns and coincidences to form theories about how the world works.
Sometimes, we draw the wrong conclusions.
But other times, seeing patterns in coincidences opens up whole new ways of thinking.
That sensitivity to patterns not only sometimes leads us astray when we're trying to think about the consequences of, what could explain how a child could release a balloon in one place and a child with the same name could catch it in another? But the kinds of coincidences that we get excited about are often things that are not just unlikely, but also suggest that there may be some other kind of force of synchronicity at work that's producing those events in the world.
The world is filled with the unknown and the uncertain.
Our brains are built to try to make sense of it.
Some things make sense.
Some don't.
But of all the mysteries we face, one looms above them all When will our luck run out? This man says we can harness our growing understanding of luck and probability and use it to beat back the specter of death.
If we choose to believe in luck, then we must also accept its dark side.
Any one of us could be seconds away from death.
Most want to postpone that moment as long as possible.
We may try to eat better, exercise, and avoid risk, but does it make a difference? Or are we all at the mercy of bad luck? David Spiegelhalter is a professor of mathematics at the university of Cambridge.
He is a guru of statistics or, you might say, a prince of probability.
Probability's a really tricky subject.
People find it unintuitive and difficult, and that's because, I think, it is unintuitive and difficult.
But it's really worth struggling to try to work out the approximate rough answer to things that might happen in the future.
David feels modern society overreacts to bad luck.
Unusual events will get a great deal of media coverage, which can make people believe riding a bicycle will kill you.
I think the problem is that when we read the newspapers or turn on the television, we hear about these terrible things to happen to people.
But of course, we don't hear about the times it didn't happen, all the people it didn't happen to, 'cause that would make a very boring story, you know "A million kids went to school today and nobody got hurt" So you can't put that on the front page of the newspaper.
Unusual deaths make the news because our fates seem so unpredictable.
However, by looking at average life spans, David can make a pretty good guess about when you're going to die.
When I was born in the early 50's, I think I could have expected to live maybe into my 70s.
But now, because of the increases in safety, improvements in healthcare, you know, I can expect to live, on average, till I'm about 82.
As you get older, your life expectancy increases by about three months every year.
It's quite incredible that every year, life expectancy goes up, on average, by three months, and it's been happening like that for decades.
Of course, how I live my life will affect whether I'm going to go beyond the 82 or not make the 82.
If I smoke, there's a very good chance I won't make it that long.
Two cigarettes will cost you half an hour of life.
The average smoker goes through 20 a day, so they lose five hours every day, or 1,825 hours a year.
Of course, you can do things to extend your life.
Each regular run of half an hour will help you gain half an hour of life, but you will have spent those half hours running.
Lifestyle will affect how long we live, but it's worth bearing in mind that a lot of statistics are taken out of context.
Eating a bacon sandwich every day of your life is supposed to increase your risk of bowel cancer by 20%.
But around 5 in 100 people will get bowel cancer, anyway, in their lifetime.
So that means that if all those 100 ate a bacon sandwich every day, that five would go up to six.
So, that's only 1 in 100 extra.
That doesn't seem quite so bad.
So, I think I'm gonna have an occasional bacon sandwich.
Living right improves your odds of survival, but there is no guarantee you won't die tomorrow.
With every passing year, David's risk of dying grows.
So how should he live his life, knowing random chance could end it at any moment? Should he live for today, or seal himself off from every possible danger? David grapples with this problem using a measurement called the micromort literally meaning "a small unit of death.
" One micromort equals a one-in-a-million chance of dying.
You know, over my lifetime, is I've got about a micromort risk of an asteroid killing me.
But it's about my daily quantity of risk, just from all causes You know, from falling off a ladder or getting run over or something like that.
David calculates the chance of dying if you ride a horse is half a micromort.
Hang gliding is eight micromorts.
Climbing a mountain above is 43,000 micromorts.
So, at what point is it worth the risk? It may depend on how old you are.
The average 18-year-old has a 500-micromort chance of dying in the next 12 months, but David's odds of dying are 14 times higher, therefore he might as well take more risks.
Whether you take wild chances or carefully calculate your every move, you are always at the mercy of bad luck.
Just driving puts you at a 40-micromort risk every year.
We can't predict what's gonna happen, and so in a sense, we're open to chance, things that we just don't know.
We can't escape it, but we can try to live with it.
In fact, I think we quite enjoy it.
We don't want to know exactly what's gonna happen in the future.
That would be pretty miserable.
It plays a crucial role in the course of our lives.
But it can run deeper than we think.
We may literally be made from it.
Perhaps luck is built into our DNA.
Every living thing is made of cells that follow genetic programs.
Those programs tell cells how to make things like trees, arms, legs.
This is the miracle of life.
From tiny bits of DNA emerges the elegance, order, and beauty of the natural world.
But inside of all living things, there is an element of chaos, a twist of luck that makes life itself possible.
Michael Elowitz is a professor of biology, bio-engineering, and applied physics at the California Institute of Technology.
So, our bodies are composed of trillions of individual, living cells.
Normally, we think of those cells as little machines that sense what's around them and respond at the right way at the right time.
But what if cells don't operate like that? What if they're not like mechanical devices that always operate in a predictable way.
What if what cells are really doing is effectively rolling the dice to figure out how they're gonna respond to any particular situation? Cells contain genes, and genes regulate the production of proteins.
Proteins are what make cells function and behave in different ways.
Only recently has anyone been able to see how this process works.
For that, we can thank a jellyfish.
Jellyfish contain fluorescent protein genes Genes that light up.
Michael and his team have been taking these fluorescent genes out of jellyfish and putting them into other cells in the lab.
Now he can watch the genes turn on and off.
What this microscope does is it goes from place to place and it takes pictures of these cells, and it takes a picture of the blue protein, the red protein, and the green protein at each place.
And what we do is we keep taking these images over and over again as each cell grows and divides, forming little micro-colonies.
We take all these images, at the end, and we stitch them together into time-lapse movies.
And in those movies, we can follow when each of these genes is being turned on and off and on and off, again and again and again.
The cells Michael creates are clones.
They should all behave in exactly the same way at the same time.
So, these cells should all change color in unison.
But they don't.
Michael and his team are conducting hundreds of experiments to find out why.
They are studying the inner workings of many different types of cells.
We built a strain of E.
Coli that had two colors in it.
Both of these colored proteins are expressed in very similar genes The cell can't really tell the difference.
If it's gonna turn one on, it ought to turn the other one on, as well.
Here's a picture where you can see how much of one of those two proteins was expressed, and here's a picture showing you how much of the other protein was expressed.
What was really striking is that if you flip back and forth between these pictures, you can see that some cells are making a lot more of one protein than the other.
When the red and green channels are combined, you get this randomness.
Even though the green and red genes are controlled the exact same way, they express themselves at different times randomly.
Michael discovered the inner workings of cells are not orderly, precise, and machine-like.
In fact, it's a matter of luck.
These proteins don't trickle out at a constant rate when the cell turns on a gene.
They come out in big bursts.
You get tons of proteins being produced at once, and then nothing silence for a long time.
These bursts are random.
They come out at unpredictable times.
Even the cell itself can't control exactly when proteins are being produced.
This messiness is seen in cells from all sorts of creatures.
It seems to be a fundamental part of how DNA functions.
The color of your eyes or whether you get a certain deadly disease may come down to heredity plus randomness.
Michael believes this cellular unpredictability exists for the most basic of reasons Survival.
For cells, these are life-or-death problems.
If they choose to express the wrong set of genes, they're gonna die.
What's important for them is to survive at least as a population.
As a population, they can guarantee that they're gonna survive by having some cells do one thing and some cells do something else and hoping that at least part of the population does the right thing at the right time.
So any strategy which all the cells do the same thing is very, very risky.
It's a little bit like going to the horse races and saying you're gonna put all your money on one horse.
It may pay off very well, but it also could have a very big downside and wipe you out.
So it can be much more advantageous to spread the risk across many different strategies.
It seems life is not just following the logical instructions of its genetic software.
Randomness is built into nature's program.
Luck and chance are not just real.
Life as we know it really wouldn't function without them.
Luck is part of our biology.
But random chance may run even deeper than that.
Genetic molecules are made up of atoms, and sub-atomic particles undergo countless interactions every nanosecond.
The true face of luck may be hidden deep down in the mysterious quantum world.
The subatomic world is a world of uncertainty.
Quantum objects, like electrons, can be in many places at once Until we measure them.
Our entire universe is constructed from quantum particles.
So does reality depend on something as fickle as when we happen to look at it? What is you knew how every flip of a coin was going to turn out? It would remove the element of luck.
You would always be certain of every outcome.
But according to Andreas Albrecht, the chairman of the physics department at UC Davis, nature will not permit that.
Andreas is one of the founders of inflation theory, which explains the origin of the universe.
But though he thinks big, he believes all problems can be reduced to the tiny size of a quantum particle.
From a physicist's point of view, luck is very real.
It's real because underlying everything around us is quantum mechanics.
Randomness is part of how every atom, how every molecule, operates.
You know, I think, "oh, if I just know the position exactly, "if I just know enough, then nothing is random and everything can be determined.
" But quantum theory says "no.
" For example, that coin flip.
Imagine you knew the position of every molecule in the air and in your body every physical detail that might effect the outcome of the Toss.
A coin flip there's a lot of different things coordinating.
Your motion of your hand, the motion of your thumb, your reflexes, and your neurons.
You zoom into those neurons, and you find your reflexes in the neurons depend on polypeptides that are bumping around within the water in your neuron.
Now, they're bumping around with all this water.
Some bump in, some bump out.
And the origin of that randomness is quantum physics.
In a back-of-the-envelope calculation that estimates coin size, speed, and neurotransmitter uncertainty, Andreas can show this quantum sequence of the events can give the same probability of throwing a head or tail as the conventional calculation one-half.
You can never be certain which way it will fall.
Down there with the molecules is quantum uncertainty that you'll never get rid of, no matter how much you know.
And that's leading to the flip of the coin, and that's leading to your luck.
Quantum uncertainty is built into everything, including you, me, and all the fish in the sea.
But for physicists, this is a big problem a universe-sized problem.
Quantum uncertainty just doesn't agree with our understanding of the large-scale universe.
Inflation theory, the theory Andreas helped invent, runs face-first into a quantum wall.
Cosmic inflation theory is the idea that, at early times, the universe underwent extraordinarily rapid expansion.
On the other hand, by making the most Simple assumptions about how inflation works, you wind up predicting not just one universe that we see, but infinitely many others.
Inflation tells us our universe is one of many, spread across a vast cosmic sea.
These self-contained universes sit side-by-side, unseen to each other.
For this goldfish, the fishbowl is its universe.
It's everything it knows.
We think we know the entire universe.
We see distant stars and galaxies.
But modern theories of the cosmos suggest that everything we see could just be our goldfish bowl and there's many other pocket universes, maybe infinitely more, out there in the cosmos.
But because there are a finite number of ways particles can be arranged in space and time, there may be other pocket universes far, far away that look like ours but are slightly different.
The problem, Andreas says, is that, if there are infinite universes, the laws of probability don't add up.
Quantum measurements estimate the probabilities of particles having certain properties.
If there are infinite universes, every possible outcome of a measurement is definitely going to happen somewhere.
This leads to a mathematical meltdown.
Once you have a theory with pocket universes, you no longer are able to use quantum probabilities the way we do in our normal theories.
So, which theory Pocket universes or quantum mechanics is more likely to be correct? Andreas says quantum theory is probably the deeper truth.
We can't see other universes, but we can see luck.
So, the quantum probabilities and the microscopic nature is the source of all our luck and all our uncertainty and all our randomness in the world.
We really do need to prepare ourselves for anything.
But there is another possibility, a possibility that will change the way you look at the world.
According to this man, there are countless other versions of you with many different fates.
Have you ever wondered how your life would have turned out if things had happened just a little differently? One of two small twists of fate could have resulted in your following a very different path.
What if you actually followed all of those paths in parallel worlds? There may be many other versions of you out there living very different lives.
Max Tegmark is a cosmology professor at M.
He strongly believes luck does not determine the course of our lives.
The proof, he says, lies in the strange ability of quantum objects to exist in many places at once.
We know that elementary particles can be in two places at once.
But I'm made out of elementary particles, so I should also be able to be in two places at once.
Quantum objects occupy a range of possibilities.
They look like waves until we measure them.
Then they turn into particles.
This means they are in many places simultaneously until they suddenly become fixed points in space.
This strange behavior is called "the collapse of the wave function.
" Max believes the wave function never really collapses.
An electron may appear to be over here in our measurement, but every other outcome also occurs in a series of parallel universes that branch off from ours.
There are many processes, like when you make a snap decision, which might depend on just what one little particle ultimately did in your brain.
So if that little particle was in two places at once, my life sort of branches out into multiple story lines.
If the quantum wave never collapses, it means you have countless clones.
They exist on top of each other in parallel universes.
These are not the side-by-side universes Andreas Albrecht imagines.
They are all the possible alternate versions of our own universe.
So, for example, if you take any hundred maxes and any hundred parallel universes, the laws of probability tell us that some will live 100 years, and some are already dead.
Max's fate all depends on which quantum reality he happens to live in.
But here's the catch.
He will never know what's happening to all those other maxes.
Suppose you sedate me and make a perfect clone of me and leave one copy here on this bed and another copy in an identical room upstairs.
You tell me all about this in advance, and you ask me "where, Max, are you gonna wake up?" Well, if you were me, what would you say? There are gonna be two Max Tegmarks waking up.
They're both gonna look the same.
They're both gonna feel the same.
They're both gonna have the same memories up until the sedation.
Each of the me's is gonna feel, "huh, I have woken up in only one room" whose number is gonna seem like a random number to me when I go out and look at it.
And there's no way for me to predict what that room number is gonna say ahead of time.
So I can never see those other Max clones.
All I notice is this apparent randomness.
Max believes our ignorance of the other realities creates the illusion we call "luck.
" Luck and randomness aren't real.
Some things feel random, but that's just how it subjectively feels whenever you get cloned.
And you get cloned all the time.
There are actually two copies of me, each experiencing one of the two outcomes.
So if you win at the roulette wheel, there's a clone of you who lost.
There is no luck, just cloning.
This idea may sound farfetched and impossible to confirm, but Max thinks his odds are not zero.
He has a one-in-a-quintillion chance of proving the theory true.
All he has to do is never die.
Yeah! Let's say Max endures a series of catastrophes, events that have a 50% chance of killing him, one after the other.
In one parallel universe, he dies.
In another, he lives.
If the wave function never collapses, then there will be two versions of me One where I'm alive and another one where I'm flattened.
But there will only be one Max having a conscious experience.
As the catastrophes continue, the odds of a version of Max surviving drop from 25% to 12.
5% to 6.
25% and so on.
In more and more parallel worlds, Max is dead.
But in one, he survives.
It's gonna feel subjectively to me like I just keep surviving and surviving and surviving, which would feel really, really weird.
If a version of Max somehow survives there is only a one-in-quintillion chance the theory is wrong.
Unfortunately, only one version of Max will know the truth.
The other quintillion minus one will be dead.
So the reality or unreality of multiple Max Tegmarks may remain in doubt.
This idea that reality is bigger than we thought and that whenever you lose at the roulette wheel, there was another version of you that won is a very weird-sounding idea.
But, hey, who are we humans to tell the universe how to behave? You know, my job as a physicist isn't to try to impose my prejudices on reality, but to look carefully at reality and try to figure out how it actually behaves.
And it seems to be what you might call weird.
Whether there just one universe or countless parallel ones, there's no way of knowing which path you will take through all your possible destinies.
Your consciousness, your DNA, and the very atoms you are built from are all on a wild and unpredictable ride.
And every decision is a gamble.