Negative numbers foil lottery players

05Nov07

Here’s a fun piece from the Manchester Evening News. A winter-themed lottery scratch card has been scrapped when players were confused by negative numbers. The lottery’s gimmick involved scratching off a temperature, if the temperature was colder than a reference temperature, then the player wins. Unfortunately, it wasn’t clear whether -8 degrees is colder or warmer than -6 degrees (Celsius, by the way). The article then goes on to mention GCSEs and maths ‘numeracy’ in Britain; similar to the dismal math education in the US.

If you’ll permit me to be a little smug: the initial hint that the individuals in the article aren’t “mathematics saavy” wasn’t the negative numbers, it was the fact they bothered to purchase a lottery ticket in the first place place. After all, isn’t the lottery just a tax on people who aren’t fluent with probability*?

* – To be fair, there’s an economic aspect to this. Some people may just enjoy the `thrill’ of the lottery so much that it validates the ticket cost that is essentially lost with the vastly improbable chances of winning. But I’ll leave a proper mathematical discussion to blogosphere probability experts like Isabel. :-)

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7 Responses to “Negative numbers foil lottery players”

  1. I wonder how many people believe that, say, 40 degrees is “twice as hot” as 20 degrees. (Celsius or Fahrenheit, it doesn’t matter…)

    Of course, in Kelvins such results actually do hold. One of the things about statistical mechanics that I want to get my head around is why the reciprocal temperature is such an important quantity there.

  2. Some background for readers: Inverse temperature in statistical mechanics plays the same role (up to a factor of i) as h-bar in quantum mechanics — they set the scale of the statistical/quantum phenomenon. (Actually, the Stat Mech – Quantum Mech relation is something I should write about some time.)

  3. 3 Charles Tye

    That’s so tragic. It reminds me of a recent Danish episode of “Who wants to be a Millionaire?”. One of the earlier questions was “What is -6 times -2?”. The contestants (there were two of them) had no idea at all. In the end they took a 50/50 and then guessed right.

    Also, some years ago there was a “mathematically savvy” person in the UK who came to the same conclusions as you about lottery playing. He organised a large syndicate of his work colleagues to play the lottery and simply pocketed their ticket money, paying out small prizes as they came up. This worked quite well until they won a very large prize which he was totally unable to pay and he ended up in court being sued by them. Unlucky, or what?

  4. 4 robert

    It would be splendid to see your thoughts on the relationships between QM and SM, Planck’s constant and inverse temperature. And maybe even defects and gauge theories, and the entire universe in a droplet of liquid helium.

    The Lottery is a tax on the poor, rather than the stupid. If £1 is as naught to the punter, then why not give it a crack (don’t get carried away and buy lots of tickets though) I know a chap whoworked for over ten years as a ‘quant’ for a big name Bank, and now holds a prominent academic position, who places his £1 bet religiously every weekend, using numbers generated at random.

  5. 5 Bobotheclown

    Yeah only the poor play the lottery… What about Wall Street?
    :)

  6. 6 Paul Evans

    In response to Charles Tye – no not at all unlucky. Any attempt to take advantage out of the statistics needs to consider the sample size required to protect yourself as well as the probability. What you are looking at is a concept like insurance – collecting small sums from lots of people and paying out claims to a few. If an insurance company only insured one town which was then swamped by floods it would go bust. This would not be bad luck but a bad business plan. If you only “insure” one lottery syndicate then you run the risk that it will be one of the “lucky” succesful ones.


  1. 1 The Purpose of This Blog - The Quantum Pontiff

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