From Cosmos to Chaos: The Science of Unpredictability

From Cosmos to Chaos: The Science of Unpredictability

From Cosmos to Chaos: The Science of Unpredictability

From Cosmos to Chaos: The Science of Unpredictability


Cosmology has undergone a revolution in recent years. The exciting interplay between astronomy and fundamental physics has led to dramatic revelations, including the existence of the dark matter and the dark energy that appear to dominate our cosmos. But these discoveries only reveal themselves through small effects in noisy experimental data. Dealing with such observations requires the careful application of probability and statistics.

But it is not only in the arcane world of fundamental physics that probability theory plays such an important role. It has an impact in many aspects of our everyday life, from the law courts to the lottery.

Why then do so few people understand probability? And why do so few people understand why it is so important for science? Why do so many people think that science is about absolute certainty when, at its core, it is actually dominated by uncertainty?

This book attempts to explain the basics of probability theory, and illustrate their application across the entire spectrum of science.


The true logic of this world is the calculus of probabilities.

James Clerk Maxwell

This is a book about probability and its role in our understanding of the world around us. 'Probability' is used by many people in many different situations, often without much thought being given to what the word actually means. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to offer my own perspective on this issue, which may be peculiar because of my own background and prejudices, but which may nevertheless be of interest to a wide variety of people.

My own field of scientific research is cosmology, the study of the Universe as a whole. in recent years this field has been revolutionized by great advances in observational technology that have sparked a 'data explosion'. When I started out as an ignorant young research student 20 years ago there was virtually no relevant data, the field was dominated by theoretical speculation and it was widely regarded as a branch of metaphysics. New surveys of galaxies, such as the AngloAustralian Two-degree Field Galaxy Redshift Survey (2dFGRS) and the (American) Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), together with exquisite maps of the cosmic microwave background, have revealed the Universe to us in unprecedented detail. the era of 'precision cosmology' has now arrived, and cosmologists are now realizing that sophisticated statistical methods are needed to understand what these new observations are telling us. Cosmologists have become glorified statisticians.

This was my original motivation for thinking about writing a book, but thinking about it a bit further, I realized that it is not really correct to think that there is anything new about cosmology being a statistic subject. the quote at the start of this book, by the distinguished British mathematician George McVittie actually dates from the 1960s, long before the modern era of rapid data-driven progress.

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