June 29, 2003

The Music of Chance

One of my favorite alternative history novels has always been L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, in which Martin Padmore, an American historian, finds himself transported back to Rome, which is about to fall, ushering in the Dark Ages. Martin (or Martinus) has to work quickly to prevent the collapse of civilization through technological change; he establishes himself as a financial magnate in short order, through the introduction of distilled liquors, telescopes, newspapers and double-entry book-keeping. I always admired de Camp for underlining the importance of the last innovation - it really transformed the economy, as Weber among others has emphasized.

But now I’ve discovered that Martinus wouldn’t have needed to be so inventive to prosper; all he would have had to do is to play dice. Ian Hacking, whose work on the history of thought reeks of authoritativeness, informs us in The Emergence of Probability that the classical world was gambling-mad - Marcus Aurelius was so obsessed with dice that he brought his personal croupier everywhere. However, nobody understood the basics of probability theory until the fifteenth century at the earliest. In other words, if you understood the simple mathematics of frequency, you could clean up. As Hacking puts it

Someone with only the most modest knowledge of probability mathematics could have won himself the whole of Gaul in a week.

Good thing to know, if you ever find yourself zapped back to fifth century Europe …

Posted by Henry at June 29, 2003 10:13 PM | TrackBack

Zap me back, then, will you? All that remains of my knowledge of probability is the most modest amount…

Posted by: Doug at July 1, 2003 05:44 AM

Very interesting post

Posted by: Mike at October 21, 2003 06:57 AM
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