Luck, Chance, Or Sensitivity To Initial Conditions?


Hi folks,

An important aspect of endurance races is the fact that you really cannot predict what will happen out there. You can weight the dice in your favor by training, amassing good equipment, and developing the best mental attitude. The problem is that things happen.¬† A hard hit to a critical muscle by one of those crazy people in the swim, equipment failure on the bike, or muscle cramps on the run? These are the things that ‘just’ happen, to say nothing of the weather. So luck plays a role, whether you like it or not. But what exactly is luck?

You could postulate that none of the above would occur if you had paid better attention on the swim, took more care with your bike, or modified your diet and/or training regimen. This is the difference between chance and sensitivity to initial conditions. You can carry a rabbit’s foot or take greater care, but things will still happen. It doesn’t matter how much care you take of your bike; a minor manufacturing defect can still throw you out of the race (or out of your life, for that matter). The chance of this happening is small, but not zero, which brings me to a subject that has interested me for years. Is there such a thing as chance? I suspect that there is not, quantum mechanics or no quantum mechanics, and I am in good company in this respect. Albert Einstein for instance, as evidenced by his famous quote concerning Quantum Mechanics, “God does not play dice“.

Great book if you want to understand the bizarre science of statistics. From:

The mathematics of probability (chance) distributions underpins the discipline of statistics. The behavior of chance events was first developed, at least in part, by tossing coins and counting the number of heads versus tails for a range (n) of repetitions of the process, observing the behavior of these numbers as n went towards infinity. Aside: If you know little about the science of Statistics, which actually plays a major role in many aspects of your life, read ‘The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century.’ This book, recommended to me by a statistician, provides a rapid and enjoyable demystification of this fascinating discipline.

Then we come to Chaos Theory, and sensitivity to initial conditions. Perhaps each coin fell towards one particular side due to some aspect of the physics of the tossing process. Many years ago I saw a movie, I think that it was entitled ‘Bug,’ which portrayed the nature of this sensitivity in everyday life. The storyline starts with a kid trying to decide whether or not to tread on an insect on the sidewalk. He finally does so rather dramatically, which distracts a driver glancing his way that leads to a fender-bender, changing the lives of the occupants of the vehicles in significant ways. If you only knew the story of the crash, but with the exception of the bug-crushing event, you would remain ignorant of the critical role played by the bug in the outcome. Clearly, many such events led to the creation of a boy who would prefer to kill the bug than not kill the bug. This is classic Chaos Theory stuff.

Michel Feigenbaum, an early investigator of this theory, is one of my science heroes, not that I have ever met him or know if he is nice guy. I read a story in which Feigenbaum was pursuing the rules that lie behind ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ that ultimately led to his discovery of the Feigenbaum Constant.

He was so engrossed in this research that he didn’t publish enough scientific papers to satisfy the university administrators, so they took his computer away. Feigenbaum was unfazed, and just continued his work on one of those old, programmable Hewlett-Packard calculators, which stored data on an external strip of readable magnetic tape.

The Elephant as seen by six blind 'men.' From:

This state of conflict, which is very real, and that can exist between scientists and their administrators, is skillfully portrayed in ‘Arrowsmith,’ by Sinclair Lewis. Chaos Theory and Statistics are probably just two ways of looking at the same thing, unpredictable (to us today) events that exhibit patterns of behavior. This situation¬† reminds me of the Chez Ollie.


This link, which is a MUST SEE, shows many examples of fortunate outcomes resulting apparently from pure luck (plus some obvious skill in the case of the guy on the motorcycle). For each event in the video, you can imagine the nature of the critical initial conditions that saved the life of the individual at risk. For the majority of these people, I am sure, their survival was attributed to luck or ‘grace,’ depending upon their philosophy of life, rather than any aspect of Chaos Theory.

Prepare well for your next race, and cross your fingers.


-k Your Medical Mind


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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.