The Best of All Possible (Football) Universes

Proving that you can find physics in everything, Sean Carroll points to a strange anomaly in the Super Bowl coin toss: the NFC has won 14 coin tosses in a row. The odds of this happening seem to be vanishingly small, making this a 3.8-sigma effect, almost enough to claim the detection of a new particle, and certainly enough to justify the generation of a press release.

Of course, there are two problems with Sean's analysis, one classical and one quantum. The classical objection is that what we have a record of is one team winning the toss every time, which does not mean that the coin is doing anything wonky. There's probably somebody out there who has a record of whether the coin came up heads or tails in each of those tosses, but that's not the same thing. To calculate the probabilities correctly, you'd need to know something about the distributions of "heads" vs. "tails" calls by super Bowl team captains, which may or may not be 50-50.

More importantly, though, the quantum objection renders this moot: If you believe in a Many-Worlds or multiverse interpretation of quantum physics, the probability of the NFC winning fourteen consecutive coin flips is 100%-- among the effectively infinite branches of the wavefunction of the universe, there must be one in which the 14-in-a-row streak has occurred. And also one where the AFC has won all 45 Super Bowl coin tosses, and one in which the coin has landed on edge 45 times in a row, and so on.

This might seem like a bucket of cold water thrown on an otherwise fun bit of geeking out, but it's actually a cause for hope. After all, if there are all these improbable universes out there with weird things happening in the coin toss, there must also be universes in which weird things happened in the game. But then, we know that already, from Super Bowl history-- two of my Giants' Super Bowl titles came about in a fashion that clearly indicates some quantum fluctuations in action (the third was a thorough drubbing of the Broncos). At least from where I sit, this puts us in the best of all possible football universes. But for those of you who root for other teams, take heart-- somewhere out there in the multiverse, there's a universe in which the 2007 Patriots went 19-0, and even one in which the Buffalo Bills had an unprecedented run of four consecutive titles in the 90's.

Well, OK, maybe that's a little too unlikely, even for quantum physics...

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How do I get to the universe where my Niners beat out the Giants? There must be some kind of interferometer I could make to get there. Damn should have been an experimentalist.

Yeah, Dave, if you ever figure that out, please let me know. I'm still trying to get to a universe in which my Bills actually beat the Giants in SB XXV.

That's my big objection to the many world interpretation. It implies that there is at least one lucky-verse in which people leap out of windows and the air molecules reliably carry them to the ground safely, you can walk through walls when you want to, and chemical reactions run forward or backwards as one pleases in the laboratory. (Oh yeah, there's no need for heating or air conditioning as the warm or cold molecules simply do what one might desire.)

I suppose this might be a good premise for a science fiction story set in the luckyverse in which someone leaps from a skyscraper and twists an ankle after a bit too hard landing, and this triggers a revolution in physics and scientific thought.

Actually that's not what the MWI implies. Personally, I don't completely buy MWI, but I can tell you that's not what it implies. In MWI the usual laws of physics still apply. Ultimately, it simply comes down to a re-interpretation of wavefunction collapse.

I heard they discovered a universe in which Brett Favre was picked up by the Vikings and played for two seasons, and retired a total of three times.

This theory is obviously preposterous!

The data for that new particle just lost their significance.

BTW, I quickly found a list of which team won the toss (and you can also find out who got to call it from other records), but finding out heads or tails appears harder.

Also, they don't use a real coin, so how "fair" it is must vary from year to year.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 05 Feb 2012 #permalink

What's a "real" coin? Legal tender? Half-pennies are no longer legal tender, so are they no longer real coins?

But your point about fairness is correct since the coin varies from year to year.

" I'm still trying to get to a universe in which my Bills actually beat the Giants in SB XXV"

I heard there is a universe in which the Bills started the season so hot that fan ran out to place pre-orders on their "Super Bowl Runner-Up" shirts and hats.

I heard they discovered a universe in which Brett Favre was picked up by the Vikings and played for two seasons, and retired a total of three times.

This theory is obviously preposterous!