MODERATOR: Marcus du Sautoy
PARTICIPANTS: Amir Aczel, Gerd Gigerenzer, Leonard Mlodinow, Josh Tenenbaum
PROGRAM DATE: Thursday, June 2, 2011

Stuff happens. The weather forecast says it’s sunny, but you just got drenched. You got a flu shot—but you’re sick in bed with the flu. Your best friend from Boston met your other best friend from San Francisco. Coincidentally. What are the odds? Risk, probability, chance, coincidence—they play a significant role in the way we make decisions about health, education, relationships, and money. But where does this data come from and what does it really mean? How does the brain find patterns and where can these patterns take us? When should we ditch the data and go with our gut? What took place was a captivating discussion that sought to demystify the chancy side of life.

More from this series: The Illusion of Certainty

This program was part of The Big Ideas Series, made possible with the support of the John Templeton Foundation.

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Mathematician, researcher, writer, and radio presenter Marcus du Sautoy has contributed to the Times, Daily Telegraph, Independent and the Guardian. For several years, he wrote a regular column in the Times called Sexy Science. He is also a frequent commentator on BBC radio and television, and was a presenter for BBC4’s TV game show Mind Games, where he was nominated for the Royal Society of Television’s Best Newcomer to a Network Award. In 2008, he wrote and hosted a four-part landmark TV series for the BBC called The Story of Maths. His other achievements include Alan and Marcus go forth and multiply, which he co-presented with comedian Alan Davies, and The Secret You, a film about the science of consciousness. In 2010, he presented a six-part BBC series called The Beauty of Diagrams and is currently producing a 3-part landmark series for BBC2 called The Code.

Marcus du Sautoy is also the author of numerous academic articles and books on mathematics, including Finding Moonshine, The Number Mysteries, and his bestseller, The Music of the Primes, which was translated into 10 languages and won two major prizes in Italy and Germany for the best popular science book of the year.

In addition, he has written and presented several series for radio that include 5 Shapes, Maths and Music, and The Baroque: from ecstasy to infinity. His other contributions include a ten-part series for BBC Radio 4 called A Short History of Mathematics, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures entitled THE NUM8ER MY5TERIES, and Why Beckham chose the 23 shirt, which has been played to a wide-spread audience ranging from prison inmates to diplomats.

In 2001, Marcus du Sautoy won the prestigious Berwick Prize, which is awarded every two years by the London Mathematical Society for the best mathematical research made by a mathematician under 40. In 2004, Esquire Magazine chose him as one of Britain’s 100 most influential people under 40. And in 2008, he was included in the prestigious directory Who’s Who. Marcus du Sautoy is also the recipient of the 2009 Royal Society’s Faraday Prize, the UK’s premier award for excellence in communicating science. In 2010, he received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List for his services to science, as well as a Joint Policy for Mathematics Board Communications Award.

Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy is a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of New College. Among his many responsibilities, Marcus du Sautoy has acted as visiting professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the Max Planck Institute in Bonn, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Australian National University in Canberra. An avid trumpet and football player, he was born in 1965 and currently lives in London with his wife, three children, and cat Freddie Ljungberg.


Mathematician, Science Writer

Recognized mathematician and science writer Amir D. Aczel is the author of numerous books that have appeared on various bestseller lists in the United States and abroad, with translations into 22 languages.

Present at the Creation: The Story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider is his most recent literary contribution. Previous publications include Uranium Wars, The Cave and the Cathedral, The Jesuit and the Skull, Descartes’ Secret Notebook, The Mystery of the Aleph, God’s Equation, The Riddle of the Compass, Entanglement, Pendulum, and the international bestseller Fermat’s Last Theorem. In addition, Aczel writes popular science articles for Scientific American and other similar publications. His public lectures are often sold out months in advance.

From 2005 to 2007, Aczel was a visiting scholar in the history of science at Harvard University. In 2004, he became a Guggenheim Fellow.

Psychologist, Author

Gerd Gigerenzer is director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He has trained U.S. Federal Judges, physicians, and top managers in decision-making and understanding risks and uncertainties.

His award-winning popular books Calculated Risks: How To Know When Numbers Deceive You, and Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious have been translated into 18 languages. He won the AAAS Prize for the best article in the behavioral sciences and the Association of American Publishers Prize for the best book in the social and behavioral sciences. His academic books include The Empire of Chance, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart and Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox (with Reinhard Selten, a Nobel Laureate in economics). Rationality for Mortals, his most recent book, investigates decisions under limited time and information.

Gigerenzer is also the director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy, Berlin, Batten Fellow at the Darden Business School, University of Virginia, and Fellow of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and the German Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Basel and the Open University of the Netherlands. Gigerenzer was formerly professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and John M. Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor, School of Law at the University of Virginia.

Physicist, Author

Leonard Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and taught at the California Institute of Technology. He is a popular international speaker and the author of numerous academic papers in physics and eight popular science books, including four best sellers. His most recent book is The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Universe. His book Subliminal: How Our Unconscious Mind Rules Our Behavior, won the 2013 PEN/Wilson Award as “best literary science book.” His book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, was a New York Times editor’s choice and a New York Times notable book of the year, was short listed for the Royal Society book award, and won the Robert P. Balles Prize in critical thinking, and the Liber Press (Spain) Award for the “Popularization of Science.” The Grand Design, coauthored with Stephen Hawking, was a #1 best seller and was made into a three-part documentary on the Discovery Channel. Mlodinow has also written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, Nature, Newsweek, Wired, The New York Review of Books, and other mass market publications. Leonard Mlodinow has created several award-winning video games, including one in conjunction with Steven Spielberg starring Robin Williams, and has written for network television, including the series MacGyver, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the comedy Night Court.

Cognitive Scientist

Josh Tenenbaum is a professor of Computational Cognitive Science in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). He studies learning, reasoning and perception in humans and machines, with the twin goals of understanding human intelligence in computational terms and bringing computers closer to human capacities.

He and his collaborators have pioneered accounts of human intelligence based on inference in sophisticated probabilistic models. His current work focuses on understanding how people come to be able to learn new concepts from very sparse data—how we “learn to learn”—and on characterizing the nature and origins of people’s intuitive theories about the physical and social worlds.

Tenenbaum received his Ph.D. from MIT in 1999, and was a member of the Stanford University faculty in Psychology and (by courtesy) Computer Science from 1999 to 2002. Several of his papers have received outstanding paper awards or best student paper awards at the IEEE Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), NIPS, and Cognitive Science conferences. He is the recipient of the New Investigator Award from the Society for Mathematical Psychology (2005), the Early Investigator Award from the Society of Experimental Psychologists (2007), the Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association (2008), and the Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences (2011).

Photo Credit – Donna Coveney