University of Cambridge

Paul the Psychic Octopus: The Celebrity Animal of 2010

Paul the Octopus has become an international celebrity to correctly predict the outcome of football matches. But how does the Math of Paul the Octopus works? Mathematicians however think that Paul’s predictions are not really that superb, even though it is known to be the most intelligent of the invertebrates.

As Paul was calculating two possible outcomes (win or lose, and not a draw), he had a 1/64 chance of predicting 6 correct outcomes – a 1/2 chance of calculating the first game correctly, then a 1/4 chance of calculating the first two games, a 1/8 chance of calculating all the first three games, and so on.

The chances of him correctly predicting 7 games, up to the final, is 1/128. The professor of applied mathematics at the University of Bath, Chris Budd, says that even highly experienced people do not find it so easy to predict the result of a football game, and compares Paul’s feat of “prophesy” to the tossing of a coin.
He says,”If you toss a coin and it comes down heads six times, that is unlikely,” he says. “However it is not as unlikely as predicting which numbers will win the lottery, which is 1/14 million.”

“Mathematics can be spooky in the way it can appear to predict things,” he says.

“You can use mathematics to predict things in the future. When I get on an aeroplane, for example, I know I am not going to fall out of the sky because mathematics has predicted the plane will not do that. But that doesn’t mean I’m psychic.”

David Spiegelharter, the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University does not believe Paul’s predictions are that remarkable. He attributes all of these just to luck.Using the coin analogy, he that says if someone flips a coin and gets the same result nine or 10 times, it is not remarkable in itself, but it will seem remarkable to the person flipping the coin.

“Our perception about how chance happens is not very good, it is not part of our human characteristics,” Prof Spiegelharter says.”The mathematics of chance have only really developed in the past 100 years or so,” he points ou

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