Probability & Reality

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Probability & Reality

Postby You Can Call Me Ray » Fri Jun 06, 2008 5:56 pm

Here is a good one that I received in an email that shows just how strong the link is between probability and ascertaining reality.

As a part of the prep for judging the California Science Fair, judges should read the papers beforehand. This year there is one that argues Benford's Law (see below). The papers are typically well written and the students are challenged to show a genuine knowledge of the subject (Sierpinski Fractals, anyone?). The really awesome aspect of this is that these are junior level entries. So those of us who are concerned about the loss of interest in applied mathematics and physics can take some comfort in this glimmer of hope.

Dr. Theodore P. Hill asks his mathematics students at the Georgia Institute of Technology to go home and either flip a coin 200 times and record the results, or merely pretend to flip a coin and fake 200 results. The following day he runs his eye over the homework data, and to the students' amazement, he easily fingers nearly all those who faked their tosses.

"The truth is," he said in an interview, "most people don't know the real odds of such an exercise, so they can't fake data convincingly." There is more to this than a classroom trick. Dr. Hill is one of a growing number of statisticians, accountants and mathematicians who are convinced that an astonishing mathematical theorem known as Benford's Law is a powerful and relatively simple tool for pointing suspicion at frauds, embezzlers, tax evaders, sloppy accountants and even computer bugs. The income tax agencies of several nations and several states, including California, are using detection software based on Benford's Law, as are a score of large companies and accounting businesses.

Benford's Law is named for the late Dr. Frank Benford, a physicist at the General Electric Company. In 1938 he noticed that pages of logarithms corresponding to numbers starting with the numeral 1 were much dirtier and more worn than other pages. (A logarithm is an exponent. Any number can be expressed as the fractional exponent -- the logarithm -- of some base number, such as 10. Published tables permit users to look up logarithms corresponding to numbers, or numbers corresponding to logarithms.) Logarithm tables (and the slide rules derived from them) are not much used for routine calculating anymore; electronic calculators and computers are simpler and faster. But logarithms remain important in many scientific and technical applications, and they were a key element in Dr. Benford's discovery.

Dr. Benford concluded that it was unlikely that physicists and engineers had some special preference for logarithms starting with 1. He therefore embarked on a mathematical analysis of 20,229 sets of numbers, including such wildly disparate categories as the areas of rivers, baseball statistics, numbers in magazine articles and the street addresses of the first 342 people listed in the book "American Men of Science." All these seemingly unrelated sets of numbers followed the same first-digit probability pattern as the worn pages of logarithm tables suggested. In all cases, the number 1 turned up as the first digit about 30 percent of the time, more often than any other.

Probability predictions are often surprising. In the case of the coin-tossing experiment, Dr. Hill wrote in the current issue of the magazine American Scientist, a "quite involved calculation" revealed a surprising probability. It showed, he said, that the overwhelming odds are that at some point in a series of 200 tosses, either heads or tails will come up six or more times in a row. Most fakers don't know this and avoid guessing long runs of heads or tails, which they mistakenly believe to be improbable. At just a glance, Dr. Hill can see whether or not a student's 200 coin-toss results contain a run of six heads or tails; if they don't, the student is branded a fake.
The Universe is an Integrated System. Operational, Functional, and Physical.
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