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Infinite Improbability Drive

August 12, 2010

This post was inspired almost completely by movies I’ve seen…

Is there anyone in the crowd who is unfamiliar with the Infinite Improbability Drive that propels the Heart of Gold interstellar space-ship? Ok, fine, I’ll explain it for those of you who don’t get it. You know who you are.

To quote Douglas Adams:

The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 sub-meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood – and such generators were often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molicules in the hostess’s undergarments leap simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance with the Theory of Indeterminacy.

Many respectable physicists said that they weren’t going to stand for this – partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn’t get invited to those sort of parties.

If, he thought to himself, such amachine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one, is to work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea … and turn it on!

He did this, and was rather startled to discover that he had managed to create the long sought after golden Infinite Improbability generater out of thin air.

This Infinite Improbability Drive served 2 purposes: the first was to fling a spaceship across vast distances of space, and the second was to allow Douglas Adams to legitimately use extremely unlikely events to fix plot holes.

Bet you didn't see THAT one coming!

The next movie I’d like to talk about is (500) Days of Summer.

Besides having Zooey Deschanel in both movies, it features a significant commentary revolving around the concept of random chance and “providence” or “synchronicity”.

What do I mean by these words? I mean fate. The story surrounds the relationship of a boy and a girl, as interpreted by the boy. The boy is a hopeless romantic and believes in things such as fate, and a “one true love”. The girl doesn’t, and she dumps him, and the boy is devastated, justifiably or no.


Blah blah blah, exposition, exposition exposition, Boy runs into girl, and she is now married, despite throughout the movie having professed disbelief in the institution and “love”. Summer has experienced a radical change of heart, and now believes it exists, cause she’s lame like that. The boy doesn’t, but she insists that fate must exist, because…

The man she married ran into her by chance, in a restaurant, and asks her about the book she’s reading. If she had been ten minutes late, if she had been ten minutes early, if she had decided to go to a movie, if she had been reading a different book, or (it’s implied) if she had stayed with the boy, she wouldn’t have met the man she loves. Therefore, it is professed, that it was meant to happen.

And the point is:

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the use of extremely improbable events is a joke. In most other movies, however, they’re not. I saw the end of the movie Watchmen again the other day, a movie I really strongly do not care for, with prejudice. The giant blue guy who can control everything from subatomic exchanges to witnessing massive astronomical events, but can’t seem to muster up the self-control to wear pants, puts the point into clarity:

And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.

This tool

Once again, we see that what is determined to be “improbable” is shown to be the work of an external force, like fate or God.

This point of view is not limited to movies!!!!!

I was reading my friend’s blog today, called Cities of the Mind. Specifically, I found the response to be a good demonstration of this perspective in action. The general idea is: “this universe, and our existence is so improbable, that it had to come from an intelligent creator”.


There is no way to test for any sort of “intelligent design” as perpetrated by a Christian-style god.

I’m not saying that one doesn’t exist, I’m just saying that to claim God exists by virtue of a series of random events is incorrect. And yet this view is held by many. In general, we only remember the extremes of random chance: we remember when we think of someone’s name and they immediately call us, not when we think of someone’s name and they don’t. Or when they call us without us thinking of their name. Or when we think of a name and someone else calls us. etc, etc, etc.

BTW: Watchmen was lame.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Orion permalink
    August 12, 2010 9:39 pm

    A thought:

    The events and circumstances of our lives are composites of so incomprehensibly many probabilistic affairs, that even those things that seem likely become impossible to predict, and it becomes clear how little control we can ever really have.
    E.g., if 6000 very likely (P(A)=.999) things have to happen in the background for you to make it to work, there’s still only a 1-in-400 chance of success. These numbers get a lot bigger in real life.

    A much more obvious, and therefore insidious, mix-up:

    One sperm in fifty million and one egg in three hundred thousand came together to make you. It was unlikely, and that makes you special. Except that every other outcome was just as unlikely. And would produce someone who felt that they were special. Every result is unique. You’re finding, in a haystack, a particular piece of hay.
    So, when all possible outcomes are incredibly improbable, it doesn’t really do to hold something’s unlikelihood up as evidence of its specialness, interest, or design.

  2. August 17, 2010 11:56 am

    Are you channeling your dad? You know, with more words and stuff? Couldn’t have said it better myself. Kind of like a friend of Craig Newmark putting a Craigslist bookmark on my then – unknown wife’s browser at roughly the same time I put up a personal ad making fun of all the M 4 F ads. She clicked the link the next day and turned out to be the only reply who got the snark. That was just about five bleems ago.

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