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Chemical Eye on the Odds
by Preston MacDougall


August 13, 2006

There is no such thing as a sure bet. Exhibit A is a limping horse named Barbaro.

Prior to the start of the 2006 Preakness Stakes, at the Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, the odds were even that Barbaro would win his second jewel on the coveted Triple Crown of horse racing.

Although it sounds like a numerical paradox, "even odds" simply means that the probabilities of two possible events occurring are exactly the same, or 1 to 1. In the case of a horse race, the odds that are usually posted are "winning versus not winning", although there are many other scenarios that people bet on, such as "placing", which means coming in first or second.

jpg horse race


Contrary to what Ricky Bobby was taught as a young boy in the movie Talladega Nights - "If you ain't first, you're last" - there are many other possibilities in life, including the exceedingly rare "fracture your leg during a false start".

Horses with broken or badly fractured legs are almost always euthanized, so I am glad to read reports that Barbaro has beaten the odds that really count, and can probably look forward to life on a fancy stud farm. Nice work if you can get it, or so says Mr. Ed.

This reminds me of one of my obsessions during high school - no, not becoming a stud, rather calculating odds. As a young boy, I occasionally accompanied my father to Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. Presumably my father was trying to spark an interest in mathematics in my impressionable mind.

Perhaps it was because of my earlier familiarity with handicaps, but I definitely caught on to the topic of probabilities quickly in my math classes, and rather enjoyed it. Still do. The odds are even better that when some of the older brothers in my high school fraternity thought it would be fun to have "poker nights", my father's tutoring helped me do better than average.

After a while, it got pretty serious and large sums of money, or worse (IOU's), started changing hands. I quit going when it became clear that the odds of losing friends were rapidly exceeding the odds of winning money.

If you are familiar at all with quantum theory, you already know that modern theoretical physics has warped our sense of reality. Schrödinger's cat is neither dead nor alive, but something in between that is best described as a probability of being alive.

The year 1900 is usually cited as ushering in the quantum age. That is the year that German physicist Max Planck proposed that energy is not continuous, but rather quantized. He was thus able to avoid what had been called the "ultraviolet catastrophe". This dramatic event does not refer to an earlier crisis involving the ozone layer, but the failure of classical physics to explain something as basic as the spectrum of light that is emitted by a heated object.

All objects - alive or dead - emit energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. Your body heat is just one example. It is only one small portion of the wide spectrum of light that matter can absorb or emit. Another small portion is the visible light that our eyes can detect. All totaled, on average we are all equivalent to 50-Watt light bulbs. Some people are brighter than others of course, and you are brighter than normal after a heavy work out.

None of us glow in the dark either, and that is related to the ultraviolet catastrophe that Planck's equation rationalized. The odds of any atom or molecule in our bodies undergoing the large drop in energy that would result in emission of ultraviolet light, while not zero, are exceedingly low.

Such odds are best calculated with what is called Schrödinger's equation, conceived by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1926, and hence the eponymous cat is his.

Of course chemists had proposed and validated their own quantum theory during the previous century. But British chemist John Dalton's theory focused on matter not energy. Matter (that which has mass) is quantized in units that we lovingly call atoms.

Einstein showed that energy and mass are equivalent in the grand scheme of things. But where to post Einstein himself? Physicist? He also contributed greatly to photochemistry. Scientist-philosopher? He was also instrumental in global politics. How about "horse of a different color"?



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Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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