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Best-Selling Author Jeffrey Rosenthal Explores the World of Probabilities

How does one take the leap from statistician to best-selling author? Rosenthal said he had the idea after attending many a party where he bored the crowd talking about his work. People just didn’t want to hear about it.

"I always thought we should be able to communicate with a wider audience somehow. That was always in the back of my mind," he explained. Lucky for him, his wife’s family consists of literary kin—writers, editors, and journalists—and they suggested he try writing something for the general public.

"I thought about it, and then one of them put me in touch with a literary agent," he said. "We had a contract, and the next thing I knew I had to write a book!" he said with a chuckle.

When asked if it was difficult to draw examples from real life that resonated with people, Rosenthal admitted it was a challenge, but it’s also been an adventure.

"It was not easy to write the book," he explained. "I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a math textbook. That is was not for mathematicians. I had to think: How do these things come up in everyday life in a way that I can illustrate?"

Today, Jeffrey Rosenthal serves as a professor at the University of Toronto, dividing his time between his work on Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) algorithms and interdisciplinary projects in which he collaborates with researchers from other departments, ranging from economics to psychology to speech therapy, to tackle problems using a stats-based approach.

"Through these projects, I’ve gotten to know a little about these other areas. It keeps things interesting."

Curiouser and Curiouser

As a best-selling author, former University of Minnesota assistant professor, and an expert on statistics, Rosenthal was invited to present during the IMA's Public Lecture series. His book, Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities, stands as an entertaining introduction to statistics with examples ranging from weather prediction to winning the lottery to flying across the country to actually being struck by lightning.

His talk, entitled "The Curious World of Probabilities," took place on the evening of April 25 on the University of Minnesota campus. The auditorium was filled with faculty, students of all ages, and folks just a little bit curious about probability.

Most people have been to a casino, but many wonder if they will come home a big winner.?

Rosenthal said that casino-goers must remind themselves that most times we have no control and winning is completely out of our hands.

"It’s the spin of the wheel or the dealing of cards or it’s the video lottery terminal with the computer deciding; it always surprises me that people think they have control," he said.

Surprising Stats

Let's say you are at a party with 40 people. What are the chances that two people at that party will have the exact same birthday?

Rosenthal said that there’s about an 89% chance that some pair will have the same birthday.

"A lot of people are surprised by that. It's because the number of pairs of people is a lot more than the number of people. If there are 40 people at a party you start saying, ok what are all the pairs? A with B and A with C and B with C and B with D…It's just a simple formula. There are 780 different pairs you can make with 40 people, and with so many pairs, here is going to probably be some pair who share the same birthday," he explained.

Throughout the lecture, Rosenthal offered many other fun everyday examples like this. Many times he even had the audience in laughter. Curiously, he's mastered the art of making mathematics entertaining and accessible to the general public, his initial goal when writing his book.

The IMA's Public Lecture Series features distinguished mathematicians and scientists who illuminate the role of mathematics in understanding our world and shaping our lives. Entertaining, engaging, and accessible for general audiences, this series allows the IMA to connect with the local community and spread the excitement and impact of mathematics on our everyday lives.