• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Powerball Probabilities

The important things to win.

January 14, 2016

It is sometimes said that the lottery is a “tax on those who don’t understand Mathematics.” I found myself repeating that phrase recently (often with a tone of superiority in my voice) as people around me scrambled to buy tickets to the Powerball lottery this past week. Early in the week, the payoff reached levels of over one billion dollars, levels previously unheard of, and it seemed that everyone was talking about what the chances of winning the jackpot would be. Interesting analyses by news sources outlined the probability of several unlikely events and compared them to the chances of winning this lottery. Others listed the situations under which it might be rational to buy a lottery ticket. By the end of the week, several winners had been identified, and the frenzy concluded.

People around me spent this last week talking about all that they would buy, or do, with more than a billion dollars in lottery winnings. Some suggestions included living like a sports hero, or, better yet, buying a whole sports team. There were people who wanted to help their parents or siblings, and those who wanted to travel. I think that, after my relatives are well cared for, I would choose traveling, especially with my aging father, my sister’s family and my own family. However, that is not an issue, since I did not buy a ticket. Alas, there will be no new billionaires chairing the Math department at Ursuline College.

However, in all the discussion, I found myself realizing that, in many ways, the things that I value most are those that cannot be bought with any amount of money, even more than a billion dollars.

A former colleague who had lost her infant daughter once told me that “if a problem can be solved with money, it is not really a problem.” I recall the feeling of frustration I felt when my sister was dying, as I grew to understand over the course of that year that no amount of money could save her life. Healing those with incurable diseases or saving the life of a child whose health is threatened are still  feats still unobtainable by even the largest payoff.

And while a large sum of money might have given me access to many dating sites, there would have been no guarantee that I would someday meet the man that I now call my husband, or that my daughter would have come into my life eventually. And yet, it is their presence in my life now that make it worthwhile.

I recall the frustration I felt as I struggled to earn tenure at my first academic job, and I know that a large amount of money would not have helped me in that struggle. I now realize that having a job that I find fulfilling and meaningful is something that is to be treasured. However, even billions of dollars would not have guaranteed me access to employment that feeds my soul.

And then there are the many subtle things in life that can’t be bought with all the money in the world, such as being able to snuggle deeply into warm comforters when a snow day is unexpectedly called, making the plans for the day suddenly wide open with possibilities. Or time spent with loved ones and family, especially with teenagers who only occasionally want to share time with parents. There is the feeling of savoring one’s favorite dinner or sipping the sweet taste of hot coca on a winter evening.

And, here in Cleveland, there is the experience of having a winning professional basketball team that holds out promises of post-season playoffs, something rare in this long-suffering sports town. And, on a much smaller scale, I recall that only last week, I had the thrill of seeing my daughter make a three-point shot, launched far from the basket, as her basketball team won yet another game. Of course, I embarrassed her by standing up and cheering at the top of my lungs.

And so, readers, while I will not ask you if you bought a Powerball ticket, I will ask you for ideas about the things that improve your lives that can’t be purchased, even with more than a billion dollars.



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