COMEBACK FOR THE AGES
Every NFL football fan knows that a special record was set this weekend: Largest comeback of all time. Trailing the Indianapolis Colts at halftime by 33 points the Minnesota Vikings came back to win in overtime, final score 39-36. It was insane. It was improbable. At halftime, Pointsbet offered online gamblers 90-1 odds on any bet placed for a Vikings win. The result was unbelievably improbable. If you’re a Vikings fan, you might have felt it was a miracle.
Of course, we use that term “miracle” loosely. No laws of physics were violated during the game. Unless you want to count 11 players on the Colts defense suddenly and synchronously having my level of athletic skill transplanted into their bodies at halftime. That was odd. But you could not point to any specific moment of direct divine intervention. All things that occurred were explicable through natural causes and human variables. Everything. But dang, it felt miraculous.
AN IMPROBABLE UNIVERSE
When scientists tell us that our existence in this universe is extremely improbable, most people have in mind an event like the Vikings comeback. While sentimentalists can look at such things as “miracles,” us skeptics know better than to call something that’s merely improbable, impossible. So, the universe got lucky but lucky things happen all the time. No one is going to write home about the guy who won $1,000,000 in Vegas. Lucky? Yes. Improbable? Sure. But such events happen all the time. No miracle required.
But if that’s you, then you probably aren’t really listening to the numbers when scientists say existence is “improbable”. This is what we know about just one constant in the universe: Gravity. It has a consistent force we can measure and express in a math equation. But that force doesn’t have to be set that way. It could have been stronger, it could have been weaker. If it had been stronger, the universe would have collapsed into itself moments after the Big Bang. If gravity was weaker, stars could not have formed. No stars, no galaxies, no life, obviously.
But what’s the range this force could fall into for a universe like ours to exist? Get out your calculator. No, on second thought, keep it stashed, it won’t help. Just try to absorb this number: if gravity was different by one part in 10×1030 (that’s a 10 with 30 zeroes behind it) then no stars, no galaxies, no planets, and no you.
A TRULY MIRACULOUS RALLY
Still thinking this is merely improbable? Let’s take it back to the Vikings. Imagine they weren’t down by 33 at half time. Imagine instead they were down by 1,570 points. If they won in that scenario, would you call it a miracle? Here the reader will protest. Come on, Rick, you might as well say they were down by a zillion points – you’re giving a whole new definition to “fantasy” football!
But I’ve actually chosen the number 1,570 very intentionally. A half of football has 30 minutes or 1,800 seconds. The fastest score in the NFL is a scoop and score on a kickoff fumble – requires no play clock, takes around 8 seconds. For the Vikings to win down 1,570 points, all they would have to do is kick off, cause a fumble, then score. Then repeat that play 225 times, every 8 seconds for 30 minutes of football. 225 x 7 points for every touchdown is 1,575 points. For this to happen, no laws of physics would need to be altered or violated. Each play is a plausible football play (has happened before) and would be within the rules and within a probable timeframe. And yet… how improbable does something have to before it defies natural causes?
If you can imagine that scenario playing out before your eyes on a Sunday afternoon, you now have a sense of what is meant by the “extreme improbability” of our existence. (Only, to make it more accurate to the finetuning of gravity, you’d have to multiply the deficit by about a trillion!)
Some improbable events make you say, “lucky!” Other improbable events make you say, “conspiracy!” The universe we live in is definitely of the latter kind.