(Roughly) Daily

“The dice of Zeus always fall luckily”*…

14th century medieval dice from the Netherlands

Whether at a casino playing craps or engaging with family in a simple board game at home, rolling the dice introduces a bit of chance or “luck” into every game. We expect dice to be fair, where every number has equal probability of being rolled.

But a new study shows this was not always the case. In Roman times, many dice were visibly lopsided, unlike today’s perfect cubes. And in early medieval times, dice were often “unbalanced” in the arrangement of numbers, where 1 appears opposite 2, 3 opposite 4, and 5 opposite 6. It did not matter what the objects were made of (metal, clay, bone, antler and ivory), or whether they were precisely symmetrical or consistent in size or shape, because, like the weather, rolls were predetermined by gods or other supernatural elements.

All that began to change around 1450, when dice makers and players seemingly figured out that form affected function, explained Jelmer Eerkens, University of California, Davis, professor of anthropology and the lead author of a recent study on dice.

“A new worldview was emerging — the Renaissance. People like Galileo and Blaise Pascal were developing ideas about chance and probability, and we know from written records in some cases they were actually consulting with gamblers,” he said. “We think users of dice also adopted new ideas about fairness, and chance or probability in games”…

From fate to fairness: how dice changed over 2,000 years to be more fair: “It’s not how you play the game, but how the dice were made.”

[via Tim Carmody‘s always-illuminating newsletter, Noticing]

* Sophocles

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As we consider the odds, we might send frontier-challenging birthday greetings to a man who tempted chance– Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager; he was born on this date in 1923.  A flying ace, test pilot, and ultimately U.S. Air Force General, Yeager became the first human to officially break the sound barrier when, in 1947, he flew the experimental Bell X-1 at Mach 1 at an altitude of 45,000 ft.

Perhaps as famously, Yeager was a mentor and role model for the first class of NASA astronauts, as memorialized in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and Philip Kaufman’s film adaptation.  On finishing high school at the beginning of World War II, Yeager had enlisted in the Air Force as a private; he served a mechanic before being accepted into the enlisted flight program, from which he graduated as a “Flight Officer” (equivalent to a Chief Warrant Officer).  His extraordinary skill as a pilot fueled his continued rise through the ranks.  But NASA’s requirement that all astronauts have college degrees disqualified Yeager from membership in the space program.  So though he was by most accounts far the most qualified potential astronaut, he became instead their head teacher, the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, which produced astronauts for NASA and the USAF.

Yeager in front of the Bell X-1, which, as with all of the aircraft assigned to him, he named Glamorous Glennis (or some variation thereof), after his wife.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 13, 2018 at 1:01 am