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Conservation of Probability (1994)
Brook West

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

The story, “Null-P.” by William Tenn speaks of the perfectly average man, right at the center of the population bell-curve. In “Conservation of Probability”, Brook West explores the other end, creating a short magic realism story where one woman, Kendra, inexplicably becomes the axis mundi of black-swan events.

Kendra believes it is because she has mastered some form of telekinesis, concentrating the power of her mind to bend the laws of probability and chance. Practising on dice, she first achieves success in her kitchen rolling 23 elevens in a row. From there, she tries her mind at executing tougher and tougher improbabilities, on the way bankrupting 13 casinoes in Las Vegas. She does not realize that every time she performs such statistical flukes, other very unlikely events also take place - multi-plane collisions, meteor and lightning strikes, misers becoming generous, “teachers’ union settling without strike”, children “doing dishes without being asked” and most comically, “the chairman of the university mathematics department refused to compute the odds”. By the end of it:

(quoted from Conservation of Probability)

“On Wednesday, the sunrise was spectacular. Kendra rolled eighty seven threes in a row. There was no Thursday.”

It is not clear why the author calls all this a “conservation of probability”, except to think that she somehow is thinking of “left-tail events” and “right-tail events” on the normal curve (which would still leave the question of why her events are on one side of the probability distribution and the rest on the other). But anyway, there it is...

Published in Galaxy Science Fiction issue 3, pages 73–, May/June 1994.

In fact, there are quite a few stories in this database about exceptions/anomalies in probability and statistics. See, for example: The Law, Luck Be a Lady, The Devil You Don't and The Gigantic Fluctuation.

(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Conservation of Probability
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Year of the Jackpot by Robert A. Heinlein
  2. Statistician's Day by James Blish
  3. Luck be a Lady by Dean Wesley Smith
  4. The Devil You Don't by Keith Laumer
  5. The Gigantic Fluctuation by Arkady Strugatsky / Boris Strugatsky
  6. Into Darkness by Greg Egan
  7. Moriarty by Modem by Jack Nimersheim
  8. One by George Alec Effinger
  9. Fillet of Man by Eliot Fintushel
  10. Ylem by Eliot Fintushel
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GenreScience Fiction,
MediumShort Stories,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)