01 Mar 2014

Chances Are

A new collection of probabilities aims to bring mathematics to the masses
by Daniel Morrell


Years ago, while Amram Shapiro (MBA 1978) and a team of researchers were busy creating the probability database at the heart of his new compendium, The Book of Odds, the daughter of a friend sat in on one of their weekly data reviews. A stat caught her attention: There was a 1 in 142 chance, the researchers found, that a couple who used condoms as a contraceptive would become pregnant. Shapiro's friend called later that day to report that her daughter had confronted her boyfriend with that stat and another she saw that day: 1 in 144—the odds of a major league baseball player hitting a triple. "And I've seen triples," she told her boyfriend.

Shapiro's book—cowritten with his wife, Rosalind Wright, and longtime coworker Louise Firth Campbell—is a snapshot of the more than 500,000 sets of odds compiled between 2006 and 2009, back when Book of Odds was a start-up with offices in downtown Boston and a hot website fawned over by everyone from the New York Times to NPR. The financial crisis, though, forced Shapiro to shutter the site, transform Book of Odds into a data-consulting group, and put the numbers into book form.

Shapiro's numbers aren't simply for fun—though that's the hook. Understanding complex odds relative to something more universal—say, a baseball game—makes math and probability more palatable, he argues. "The world is increasingly dividing between those who understand this kind of math and its fundamentals and those who don't," says Shapiro, a former management consultant. He fears a coming mathematical feudalism. "We are left with a kind of elite that knows how to think about this stuff and a large mass of people who are really very vulnerable."

The Book of Odds, then, is Shapiro's attempt to give people a guiding document—something he likens to Samuel Johnson's first English dictionary. "All we're trying to do," says Shapiro, "is give people the alphabet."
—Dan Morrell

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1978, Section E
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