A metal plate launched by an explosion flew two miles, killing a man, BBC News reported. The explosion came from a chemical plant in the Catalonia region of Spain, also claiming the lives of two employees. The death raises questions about its incredible odds.
According to BBC News, the victim—identified only as Sergio—was in his apartment during the explosion at the plant. A one-tonne (2,240 lb.) metal plate was propelled by the force of the blast to Sergio’s apartment, which it struck forcefully, “causing part of the building to collapse,” the article said. Firefighters were dispatched to both the factory site and the apartment complex to contain the locations and help survivors to safety.
The loss of life in the chemical plant explosion—especially that of the man struck by the metal plate two miles away—highlights the tragic way that incredibly unlikely odds can come to fruition. Sergio’s distance from the plant and the chance of the debris finding him are almost astronomical, and yet, so-called “one-in-a-million shots” or freak occurrences still happen.
The St. Petersburg Paradox
A simple example of incredible odds comes from gambling dens in the early days of theorizing about probability, and it’s called the St. Petersburg Paradox.
“This is a game that is played at a casino, and it was imagined to be in St. Petersburg when it was originally proposed,” said Dr. Michael Starbird, Professor of Mathematics and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “You just flip a coin, and if the coin comes up heads you’re paid $2. If the coin comes up tails, and then you flip again and get a heads, then you get $4. If you [flip] tails, tails, and then heads, you get $8; three tails then a heads, $16; and so on.”
Dr. Starbird said that statistically speaking, 50% of the time, the player would get heads the first flip and receive the $2 payout; 25% of the time they’d get the $4 by flipping tails first, then heads; 1/8 of the time the player would flip two tails first, then heads and receive the $8; and so on. He and his colleagues simulated the game on a computer hundreds of thousands of times and got some interesting payoff amounts.
“When we played the game 1,000 times, there was one rather high one—$43—but the other ones were, at the most, $20,” he said. “When we played the game 10,000 times, no number was above $22. We played the game 100,000 times simulated and we did those simulations 10 times. Every [payoff] here, except for one, is $22 or less.”
The amount of the one irregular payoff was $2,097,152. In this literal one-in-a-million shot, the coin was simulated to be flipped and landed on tails 20 times in a row before landing on heads. “The St. Petersburg Paradox is that although the expected value is enormous, in practice the amount that you would want to pay to play this game is actually rather minimal,” Dr. Starbird said.
Beating incredible odds is a marked experience no matter the occasion. In gambling, sports, and illnesses with minimal survival rates, it’s a reason to celebrate. Unfortunately, as the apartment-dwelling victim of the Catalonia chemical plant explosion proves, beating the odds can have disastrous consequences in a negative setting.
Dr. Michael Starbird contributed to this article. Dr. Starbird is Professor of Mathematics and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin, where he has been teaching since 1974. He received his B.A. from Pomona College in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1974.