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What Are the Odds?

Exploring chance, probability, and fate

Have you ever pondered over the relationship between fate and free will? Are you an avid statistician or daily philosopher? Perhaps you are addicted to gambling or can’t stop reading. Ultimately, you may just be looking for an inspiring class to fulfill your arts and physical sciences GE requirements. Regardless of how you answered the prompts above, one of the Unexpected Connections courses - HONRS 290R “What are the Odds?: Probability in Math and the Humanities” has something just for you.

The class is team-taught by Dr. Todd Fisher, the resident master of chaos (theory) of the BYU Mathematics department, and Dr. Michael Call, a virtuoso in French (gambling) culture and its literature from the Comparative Arts and Literature department.

Describing the goal of the class, Dr. Fisher said, “This class will change the way students look at the world and make them think about difficult questions.” To achieve these goals, students play some popular card games to understand the mechanisms of probability and dissect the history of uncertainty in math and literature.

Students begin their adventure in ancient civilizations where the foundations of math and numbers begin. From there, the class journeys throughout history exploring the evolution of math and science along with people’s ideas of fate, fortune, and free will. Each week will bring new thinkers, philosophers, theologians, scientists, and mathematicians into the class to argue for their way of seeing the world. From plays to short stories, from novels to movies, even video games are part of the mediums that this class uses to explore the topic of probability. Ending in the modern era, students, with a newfound knowledge of statistics, physics, literature, and philosophy, will be able to answer for themselves what the relationship is between chance and determinism in the world in which we live.

Dr. Call is “hoping students come away with mutual respect for two great traditions of human inquiry: mathematics and the arts. These rich intellectual pursuits are sometimes seen as completely distinct, or even in opposition, but as we try to show in class, broad cultural shifts bring changes in both areas that reflect each other. We get to study the intellectual conversation between brilliant mathematicians and brilliant writers—and a few people who are both (here’s looking at you, Blaise Pascal).”

Current students have loved “learning about how people have viewed chance/probability throughout history” and “understanding how probability works: the fallacies that people fall into and the way to think about these things correctly.”

The cherry on top is the fact that the professors are amazing! Holland, a current student in the class, exclaimed, “I absolutely love the professors because they are genuinely so enthusiastic about the topic that it makes it interesting since you know they are so interested. Also, they are funny and facilitate great discussions making every class so entertaining!”

If amazing professors and fascinating lectures are not enough of a lure, this class is a beautiful example of interdisciplinary thinking and students leave the class as true multi-disciplinary synthesizers. Of the class, Dr. Call explained, “ two back-to-back class periods in our course, you can go from discussing an avant-garde 19th-century poem by Stéphane Mallarmé to grappling with the n-body problem and the roots of deterministic chaos. I think, though, that our course strives to live up to the Honors mandate to help us all be broad thinkers through interdisciplinary inquiry. And our students also get to learn how to play whist just like Jane Austen characters, so what’s not to like?”

Ultimately, this class will introduce students to some of the greatest minds across history, including Dostoevsky, Freud, Newton and Fermat, and will prove to be both intellectually engaging and entertaining!

Honors 290R “What are the Odds?: Probability in Math and Humanities” will be offered again in Winter 2023 and 2024. It covers the Arts and Physical Sciences GE requirements and one of the three Unexpected Connections courses required for the Honors Program. Look to sign up in October later this year when Winter registration begins!