Experiments, Sample Space, Events, And Equally Likely Probabilities Applications of simple probability experiments The fundamental ingredient of probability theory is an experiment that can be repeated, at least hypothetically, under essentially identical conditions and that may lead to different outcomes on different trials. The set of all possible outcomes of an experiment is called a “sample space.” The experiment of tossing a coin once results in a sample space with two possible outcomes, “heads” and “tails.” Tossing two dice has a sample space with 36 possible outcomes, each of which can be identified with an ordered pair (i, j), where i and j assume one of the values 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and denote the faces showing on the individual dice. It is important to think of the dice as identifiable (say by a difference in colour), so that the outcome (1, 2) is different from (2, 1). An “event” is a well-defined subset of the sample space. For example, the event “the sum of the faces showing on the two dice equals six” consists of the five outcomes (1, 5), (2, 4), (3, 3), (4, 2), and (5, 1).

sample space for a pair of dice sample space for a pair of dice Sample space for a pair of dice. Encyclop?dia Britannica, Inc. Get a Britannica Premium subscription and gain access to exclusive content. Subscribe Now A third example is to draw n balls from an urn containing balls of various colours. A generic outcome to this experiment is an n-tuple, where the ith entry specifies the colour of the ball obtained on the ith draw (i = 1, 2,…, n). In spite of the simplicity of this experiment, a thorough understanding gives the theoretical basis for opinion polls and sample surveys. For example, individuals in a population favouring a particular candidate in an election may be identified with balls of a particular colour, those favouring a different candidate may be identified with a different colour, and so on. Probability theory provides the basis for learning about the contents of the urn from the sample of balls drawn from the urn; an application is to learn about the electoral preferences of a population on the basis of a sample drawn from that population.

Another application of simple urn models is to use clinical trials designed to determine whether a new treatment for a disease, a new drug, or a new surgical procedure is better than a standard treatment. In the simple case in which treatment can be regarded as either success or failure, the goal of the clinical trial is to discover whether the new treatment more frequently leads to success than does the standard treatment. Patients with the disease can be identified with balls in an urn. The red balls are those patients who are cured by the new treatment, and the black balls are those not cured. Usually there is a control group, who receive the standard treatment. They are represented by a second urn with a possibly different fraction of red balls. The goal of the experiment of drawing some number of balls from each urn is to discover on the basis of the sample which urn has the larger fraction of red balls. A variation of this idea can be used to test the efficacy of a new vaccine. Perhaps the largest and most famous example was the test of the Salk vaccine for poliomyelitis conducted in 1954. It was organized by the U.S. Public Health Service and involved almost two million children. Its success has led to the almost complete elimination of polio as a health problem in the industrialized parts of the world. Strictly speaking, these applications are problems of statistics, for which the foundations are provided by probability theory.

In contrast to the experiments described above, many experiments have infinitely many possible outcomes. For example, one can toss a coin until “heads” appears for the first time. The number of possible tosses is n = 1, 2,…. Another example is to twirl a spinner. For an idealized spinner made from a straight line segment having no width and pivoted at its centre, the set of possible outcomes is the set of all angles that the final position of the spinner makes with some fixed direction, equivalently all real numbers in [0, 2?). Many measurements in the natural and social sciences, such as volume, voltage, temperature, reaction time, marginal income, and so on, are made on continuous scales and at least in theory involve infinitely many possible values. If the repeated measurements on different subjects or at different times on the same subject can lead to different outcomes, probability theory is a possible tool to study this variability.

Because of their comparative simplicity, experiments with finite sample spaces are discussed first. In the early development of probability theory, mathematicians considered only those experiments for which it seemed reasonable, based on considerations of symmetry, to suppose that all outcomes of the experiment were “equally likely.” Then in a large number of trials all outcomes should occur with approximately the same frequency. The probability of an event is defined to be the ratio of the number of cases favourable to the event—i.e., the number of outcomes in the subset of the sample space defining the event—to the total number of cases. Thus, the 36 possible outcomes in the throw of two dice are assumed equally likely, and the probability of obtaining “six” is the number of favourable cases, 5, divided by 36, or 5/36.

Now suppose that a coin is tossed n times, and consider the probability of the event “heads does not occur” in the n tosses. An outcome of the experiment is an n-tuple, the kth entry of which identifies the result of the kth toss. Since there are two possible outcomes for each toss, the number of elements in the sample space is 2n. Of these, only one outcome corresponds to having no heads, so the required probability is 1/2n.

It is only slightly more difficult to determine the probability of “at most one head.” In addition to the single case in which no head occurs, there are n cases in which exactly one head occurs, because it can occur on the first, second,…, or nth toss. Hence, there are n + 1 cases favourable to obtaining at most one head, and the desired probability is (n + 1)/2n.

Probability theory QUICK FACTS KEY PEOPLE Carl Friedrich Gauss Pierre de Fermat Andrey Nikolayevich Kolmogorov Siméon-Denis Poisson Abraham de Moivre Andrey Andreyevich Markov Thomas Bayes Pafnuty Chebyshev Adolphe Quetelet Paul Lévy RELATED TOPICS Mathematics Probability and statistics Gambling Bayes s theorem Central limit theorem Chebyshev s inequality Distribution function Random variable Random walk Markov process The principle of additivity This last example illustrates the fundamental principle that, if the event whose probability is sought can be represented as the union of several other events that have no outcomes in common (“at most one head” is the union of “no heads” and “exactly one head”), then the probability of the union is the sum of the probabilities of the individual events making up the union. To describe this situation symbolically, let S denote the sample space. For two events A and B, the intersection of A and B is the set of all experimental outcomes belonging to both A and B and is denoted A ? B; the union of A and B is the set of all experimental outcomes belonging to A or B (or both) and is denoted A ? B. The impossible event—i.e., the event containing no outcomes—is denoted by ?. The probability of an event A is written P(A). The principle of addition of probabilities is that, if A1, A2,…, An are events with Ai ? Aj = ? for all pairs i ? j, thenEquation.

Equation (1) is consistent with the relative frequency interpretation of probabilities; for, if Ai ? Aj = ? for all i ? j, the relative frequency with which at least one of the Ai occurs equals the sum of the relative frequencies with which the individual Ai occur.

Equation (1) is fundamental for everything that follows. Indeed, in the modern axiomatic theory of probability, which eschews a definition of probability in terms of “equally likely outcomes” as being hopelessly circular, an extended form of equation (1) plays a basic role (see the section Infinite sample spaces and axiomatic probability).

An elementary, useful consequence of equation (1) is the following. With each event A is associated the complementary event Ac consisting of those experimental outcomes that do not belong to A. Since A ? Ac = ?, A ? Ac = S, and P(S) = 1 (where S denotes the sample space), it follows from equation (1) that P(Ac) = 1 ? P(A). For example, the probability of “at least one head” in n tosses of a coin is one minus the probability of “no head,” or 1 ? 1/2n.

Multinomial probability A basic problem first solved by Jakob Bernoulli is to find the probability of obtaining exactly i red balls in the experiment of drawing n times at random with replacement from an urn containing b black and r red balls. To draw at random means that, on a single draw, each of the r + b balls is equally likely to be drawn and, since each ball is replaced before the next draw, there are (r + b) ×?× (r + b) = (r + b)n possible outcomes to the experiment. Of these possible outcomes, the number that is favourable to obtaining i red balls and n ? i black balls in any one particular order is Equation.

The number of possible orders in which i red balls and n ? i black balls can be drawn from the urn is the binomial coefficientEquation.where k! = k × (k ? 1) ×?× 2 × 1 for positive integers k, and 0! = 1. Hence, the probability in question, which equals the number of favourable outcomes divided by the number of possible outcomes, is given by the binomial distributionEquation.where p = r/(r + b) and q = b/(r + b) = 1 ? p.

For example, suppose r = 2b and n = 4. According to equation (3), the probability of “exactly two red balls” isProblem 1

In this case theProblem 2possible outcomes are easily enumerated: (rrbb), (rbrb), (brrb), (rbbr), (brbr), (bbrr).

(For a derivation of equation (2), observe that in order to draw exactly i red balls in n draws one must either draw i red balls in the first n ? 1 draws and a black ball on the nth draw or draw i ? 1 red balls in the first n ? 1 draws followed by the ith red ball on the nth draw. Hence,Problem 3from which equation (2) can be verified by induction on n.)

Two related examples are (i) drawing without replacement from an urn containing r red and b black balls and (ii) drawing with or without replacement from an urn containing balls of s different colours. If n balls are drawn without replacement from an urn containing r red and b black balls, the number of possible outcomes isProblem 4of which the number favourable to drawing i red and n ? i black balls isProblem 5

Hence, the probability of drawing exactly i red balls in n draws is the ratioRatio.

If an urn contains balls of s different colours in the ratios p1:p2:…:ps, where p1 +?+ ps = 1 and if n balls are drawn with replacement, the probability of obtaining i1 balls of the first colour, i2 balls of the second colour, and so on is the multinomial probabilityMultinomial probability.

The evaluation of equation (3) with pencil and paper grows increasingly difficult with increasing n. It is even more difficult to evaluate related cumulative probabilities—for example the probability of obtaining “at most j red balls” in the n draws, which can be expressed as the sum of equation (3) for i = 0, 1,…, j. The problem of approximate computation of probabilities that are known in principle is a recurrent theme throughout the history of probability theory and will be discussed in more detail below.

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