Fifty-Four

A regular deck of cards, as we saw a few days ago, has fifty-two cards. However, most such decks also come with two extra cards: the Jokers. (This makes each deck hold 54 cards, obviously.) Jokers can be used in many games to keep things interesting. Some games use them as “wild cards,” cards you can use in any situation, in place of any other card. This adds a level of surprise and uncertainty. In poker, you may think that your straight is unbeatable, until you find out your opponent has five aces, thanks to wild cards! Maybe I should start playing Solitaire with jokers – maybe I’d finally win once in a while. It reminds me of the “green spaces” on a roulette wheel. If I understand the odds and the payouts of roulette properly, if there were no green spaces (0 and 00), then every bet in roulette would be perfectly fair; if you bet on red (50% of the spaces), you’d receive a payout of 1:2. If you bet on even, same thing. If you bet on a particular number, the payout would still match the odds. But the green spaces throw a wrinkle into that, making the odds no longer quite match the payout. Of course, in this case, the primary reason is to make sure the house comes out ahead. (And of course they should; there’s a lot of overhead in a casino!)

What’s interesting is that there are wild cards in the real world as well. Chaos theory is all about such wild cards; in fact, it states that there is nothing other than wild cards in the world. Chaos is the theory in physics from which the “butterfly effect” comes. Perhaps you’ve heard of that. The general idea is that a butterfly flapping its wings in India can create a hurricane in the Atlantic. The butterfly could flap its wings in a slightly different way than expected, which creates a tiny difference in the local weather, which bumps the jet stream just a fraction of a millimeter south, which changes the rainfall somewhere, which so on and so forth, eventually causes a hurricane. This is one of the reasons why weather forecasts might be good in the short run, say two or three days, but become nearly impossible past a week or so. There are just too many variables, too many possibilities to account for. Too many wild cards flapping their gossamer wings.

And you might think that this is just a matter of getting more precise measuring equipment, developing faster and more powerful computers to analyze more data. But — no. Now, perhaps there are some major improvements in the future in weather forecasting, but there will always, always be a limit, and that limit is predicted by quantum physics. Because quantum physics — the physics of the very, very small — shows that the universe as we know it is actually based on probabilities. Prior to the discovery of quantum physics, one could theoretically find out the location and velocity of every single particle in the universe, and with that knowledge, correctly predict every moment of both the past and the future. But that is now understood as impossible, because at the scale of the very small, it is impossible to know with certainty where a particle is, or what it’s doing. We can only measure things in terms of probabilities. There is a 95% chance that a particle will do such and such, or perhaps even a 99.9999999% chance of it. But it can never be 100%. And that means that wild cards are built into the very fabric of our universe. There is always a chance that something unexpected will happen. (Quantum physics even predicts that there is a chance that particles will spontaneously “tunnel” from one location to another, even thousands of miles away. So, it may be 99.9999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% likely that my entire body will suddenly “jump” to Tibet, but it’s not 100%, and it never can be.

Those jokers are everywhere. Steve Miller was right.

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