Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Watch out for coconuts!

I read today that the lottery is a tax for those who are bad at math. While I, too, have gotten caught up on the fevered potential of $550 million, I got to thinking about the odds of winning the Powerball lottery.

In an article from ABC, a professor of mathematics puts winning the lottery in a little perspective.

"You are three times more likely to die from a falling coconut, he says; seven times more likely to die from fireworks, "and way more likely to die from flesh-eating bacteria" (115 fatalities a year) than you are to win the Powerball lottery."

He continued that a doctor is 100 times more likely to accurately predict the day, hour, minute, and second that your baby will be born (ours could only tell us January 9, 2013) than winning the Powerball.

For those not familiar, the winning numbers are determined by drawing 5 white balls numbered from 1-59 from one drum and 1 red ball from a separate drum of balls numbered 1-35. Official site is

The overall odds in winning the 5 white balls and 1 red ball (the grand prize of $550 million) is 1 in 175,223,510. It is a simple combination problem of 59C5 *35. If you want the formula check here. With a single ticket now costing $2, it would require an investment of ~$350 million to purchase every possible combination on a ticket to guarantee a win.

While it can be fun to dream, we should combat the idea of being bad at math.

Here is where the fun can come in for your classroom...
  1. Why don't people do this in the US? What are the potential benefits? What are the potential hazards?
  2. How many minutes would it take to print all of the combinations? Is it enough time between the announcement that there was no winner until the next drawing to accomplish this?
  3. Given a ticket that can have anywhere between 1 and 10 possible entries, how long would the roll of paper be to print all of the tickets if going 1 game entry at a time? 10 at a time? How much would all of the tickets weight? How large of a room would be needed to house all of the tickets?
  4. If you wanted to gain investors, how many equivalents of your class, school, town, would be needed if everyone invested $2? Assuming the jackpot was won, how much would each equivalent earn for their investment?
  5. What could/would you do with the money? How would students budget it?
  6. Using a simple compounding interest formula, how much interest would be made at the current interest rate? Would the effect your spending plan? What if you made some large purchases first (car, house, etc)?
These are questions I came up with. Even better, what questions would your students come up with?

Lets make our students better thinkers and better at understanding mathematics and number sense. And, since you are three times as likely to die from a falling coconut as you are in winning Powerball, keep an eye out!

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