The Conservation of Luck

(No, not Andrew Luck.)

In Chinese there’s a saying called “Feng Shui ren liu zuan”… okay my pinyin sucks, Whatever. Translated literally, it means, “luck circulates around”. Now when I think of that, I’m thinking luck as some water or other fluid traveling in a circular trajectory – kinda like in a vortex. Well, actually, I think of something a little more complicated. What we’re going to do now is constrain that fluid to one dimension wrapped around in a circle – water stuck onto a rubber band. And we’re going to assert that no fluid drips out. We’re standing on the rubber band, and the amount of fluid we’re exposed to is our luck. The total amount of fluid on the rubber band remains the same, but the fluid is free to spread around, clump at one point, etc. And how our day goes will be determined largely by what the fluid does.

Now there’s some implications to this. The fluid’s motion and distribution is random. But the total luck contained in the world, so to speak, is somewhat constant: integrate the luck across the circle and the result is independent of time. And, if you stay at any one point for a long time, chances are you’ll get exposed to the same total luck as everyone else: integrate the luck across a long period of time and the result is independent of position on the circle. 

The upshot is that luck is conserved, spatially and temporally. I believe that, for every instance of good luck someone somewhere gets, it will be followed by bad luck at some other time, or at some other place; by conservation of total luck, every instance of good luck has to be countered by an equally strong instance of bad luck. There have been stories of lottery winners who die on the way back, or of Lamborghini winners crashing their rewards 6 hours later. (That though could be as much stupidity as it is luck.) Here though, since I’ve been pondering about the spring tornadoes this year during break, we analyze such conservation of luck in the context of weather, in the tragedies of Tuscaloosa and Joplin. Due to the interest of length, I will save that for the next post.

[A little footnote before we begin. I define luck in terms of small perturbations. Anyone can say we were lucky that the Joplin tornado didn’t hit Kansas City, Tulsa, or St. Louis – but that would have required a completely different setup, different supercell, different placement of frontal systems and mesoscale boundaries. I’m talking about the small things: if we perturb our conditions by just a little bit – had the tornado gone a few miles south – 161 people would still be alive today. And that is what I mean by bad luck.]


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