Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lucky Numbers

Anna and I went out for Chinese food in Philadelphia today. As I looked at the lucky numbers in my fortune cookie, I couldn't help but wonder, "If everyone who ate Chinese food today played their lucky numbers in the lottery, what are the chances at least one of them would win?"

Both fortune cookies and lottery numbers usually show about 5 numbers that can range from roughly 1 to 50.  The probability of picking the first number correctly is 5 out of 50.  The probability of picking the second number correctly is 4 out of 49.  The probability of picking the third number correctly is ...  Multiplying these probabilities together, we can find the total probability of finding the right sequence of numbers1,

P = [(5)! · (50-5)!] / 50! = 4.7×10-7.

That's about one in two million. I generally go out for Chinese food about once per month, which seems like a reasonable amount for most people.  Taking that as the average and using the fact that there are 3.0×108 Americans, we can estimate the number of people that went out for Chinese today,

# of people going for Chinese = (prob. of going out for Chinese) · (total # of people)
= (1 day / 30 days) · (3.0×108 people)
= 1.0×107 people.

The probability that everyone will will pick the right numbers is P10,000,000.  Likewise, the probability of everyone picking the wrong number is (1-P)10,000,000. The probability that at least one person will win is then just

1 - (1-P)10,000,000
= 0.009.

There's about a 1% chance that if everyone played their lucky fortune cookie numbers at leat one would win.

[1] This is the well known binomial distribution.
[2] I'm assuming the fortune cookie's "lucky numbers" are random and uniformly distributed.

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