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…