The Man Who Invented Modern Probability

tags: Andrei Kolmogorov, mathematics



Dr. Slava Gerovitch is a lecturer on the history of mathematics at MIT, and an expert on space history and Russian science and technology. The author of From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics, Gerovitch is also the director of the Program for Research in Mathematics, Engineering and Science for High School Students (PRIMES).

If two statisticians were to lose each other in an infinite forest, the first thing they would do is get drunk. That way, they would walk more or less randomly, which would give them the best chance of finding each other. However, the statisticians should stay sober if they want to pick mushrooms. Stumbling around drunk and without purpose would reduce the area of exploration, and make it more likely that the seekers would return to the same spot, where the mushrooms are already gone.

Such considerations belong to the statistical theory of “random walk” or “drunkard’s walk,” in which the future depends only on the present and not the past. Today, random walk is used to model share prices, molecular diffusion, neural activity, and population dynamics, among other processes. It is also thought to describe how “genetic drift” can result in a particular gene—say, for blue eye color—becoming prevalent in a population. Ironically, this theory, which ignores the past, has a rather rich history of its own. It is one of the many intellectual innovations dreamed up by Andrei Kolmogorov, a mathematician of startling breadth and ability who revolutionized the role of the unlikely in mathematics, while carefully negotiating the shifting probabilities of political and academic life in Soviet Russia.

As a young man, Kolmogorov was nourished by the intellectual ferment of post-revolutionary Moscow, where literary experimentation, the artistic avant-garde, and radical new scientific ideas were in the air. In the early 1920s, as a 17-year-old history student, he presented a paper to a group of his peers at Moscow University, offering an unconventional statistical analysis of the lives of medieval Russians. It found, for example, that the tax levied on villages was usually a whole number, while taxes on individual households were often expressed as fractions. The paper concluded, controversially for the time, that taxes were imposed on whole villages and then split among the households, rather than imposed on households and accumulated by village. “You have found only one proof,” was his professor’s acid observation. “That is not enough for a historian. You need at least five proofs.” At that moment, Kolmogorov decided to change his concentration to mathematics, where one proof would suffice....



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