Part of the Mathematics glossary:

Probability is a branch of mathematics that deals with calculating the likelihood of a given event's occurrence, which is expressed as a number between 1 and 0. An event with a probability of 1 can be considered a certainty: for example, the probability of a coin toss resulting in either "heads" or "tails" is 1, because there are no other options, assuming the coin lands flat. An event with a probability of .5 can be considered to have equal odds of occurring or not occurring: for example, the probability of a coin toss resulting in "heads" is .5, because the toss is equally as likely to result in "tails." An event with a probability of 0 can be considered an impossibility: for example, the probability that the coin will land (flat) without either side facing up is 0, because either "heads" or "tails" must be facing up. A little paradoxical, probability theory applies precise calculations to quantify uncertain measures of random events.

In its simplest form, probability can be expressed mathematically as: the number of occurrences of a targeted event divided by the number of occurrences plus the number of failures of occurrences (this adds up to the total of possible outcomes):

p(a) = p(a)/[p(a) + p(b)]

Calculating probabilities in a situation like a coin toss is straightforward, because the outcomes are mutually exclusive: either one event or the other must occur. Each coin toss is an independent event; the outcome of one trial has no effect on subsequent ones. No matter how many consecutive times one side lands facing up, the probability that it will do so at the next toss is always .5 (50-50). The mistaken idea that a number of consecutive results (six "heads" for example) makes it more likely that the next toss will result in a "tails" is known as the gambler's fallacy , one that has led to the downfall of many a bettor.

Probability theory had its start in the 17th century, when two French mathematicians, Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat carried on a correspondence discussing mathematical problems dealing with games of chance. Contemporary applications of probability theory run the gamut of human inquiry, and include aspects of computer programming, astrophysics, music, weather prediction, and medicine.

This was last updated in December 2005
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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