What are the chances?

Forty-three years ago, I was a first-year student at Dartmouth. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been that long since my Dartmouth journey began – though delightful for me to say that it’s still continuing today.

Among my most lucid memories as a student are those of John Kemeny. He was, of course, Dartmouth’s president at the time, but he was also a professor in one of my classes. I remember him as a meticulous lecturer, very formal in style, and already the stuff of legend on the Dartmouth campus – known for having been Einstein’s assistant, having worked on the Manhattan Project. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by his image that I never worked up the courage to actually speak to him during my time at Dartmouth, though in hindsight, I wish I had!

Professor Kemeny was, indeed, a brilliant man. And I had the good fortune of taking Introduction to Probability with him my sophomore summer. This was one of the courses that ignited my passion for the subject and set me on the mathematical journey that has led me to where I am today. Though I must confess: if he had asked me then about the chances that I would go on to a career in mathematics and one day teach Probability at Dartmouth as President of the College, I’d have likely answered that probabilistic question with a dismissive, “not a chance in hell!”

Yet here we are, in the fall of 2016, and I have the privilege of teaching that very same class – Math 20 – in a building that now bears his name. It’s truly an honor for me to teach at Dartmouth at a time when our commitment to undergraduate teaching is as strong as it ever was – and even sweeter to be teaching one of my most favorite subjects, which has also been the feature of some of my research.

Probability is a true blend of basic and applied. Combining concepts from algebra, analysis and combinatorics, Math 20 fully features the beauty and elegance that have drawn me to pure mathematics.

At the same time, it is a subject that comes into play, over and over again, in everyday life. When Professor Kemeny said, “The man ignorant of mathematics will be increasingly limited in his grasp of the main forces of civilization,” he was right, particularly when it comes to probability.

Indeed, we see applications for it in nearly every field, from business and economics to politics and public health. It is used to predict behaviors and outcomes, like presidential elections, as well as to assess risk and make better and more informed decisions. In fact, there’s not a major league sports franchise today that’s not using statistical inference to make personnel decisions, design game plans and make real-time play calls – a concept brought to the forefront of American conscience in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and the impetus for a Sports Analytics class I co-taught with Michael Herron of our Government Department last fall.

There are about 30-35 students in my class this term – a combination of upper-level undergraduates and some graduate students. The objective is to give them a framework in which to think about probabilistic questions. Questions relevant to their lives today like how to interpret election polls…including how to consider things like margin of error and the impact of decisions made by pollsters in analyzing the data. (Nate Cohn explained how the same raw data could yield different results quite brilliantly in a recent New York Times Upshot post.) And questions of more historical interest, like the decryption of an actual correspondence sent to General Gage by one of his lieutenants during the battles between the British and French over control of North America.

There is no question that we live in an increasingly data-driven world. As a professor, I want my students to have an edge by knowing how to make sense of it all. Any time they hear an argument based on data, I want them to challenge the conclusions. I want them to ask questions about the factual basis and the statistical methods employed.

For nearly 250 years, Dartmouth faculty have inspired their students to look at the world in new ways, to think about their lives differently. And I know that tradition is alive and well – I hear from students all the time about the life-changing classes that they’ve had here at Dartmouth.

I experienced this first-hand as a student at Dartmouth. In Math 20 and any number of other courses across the curriculum, Dartmouth professors like John Kemeny had that kind of impact on me. Like John Kemeny, I hope to pay it forward to a future generation of Dartmouth graduates.