Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Fortuna and Probability - Two Mathematical Amusements

(German title: Fortuna und Kalkül)
ca. 71 pages
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Foto: Hans Magnus Enzensberger
© Jürgen Bauer

» […] one of Germany's leading public intellectualsLondon Review of Books

Hans Magnus Enzensberger was born in Kaufbeuren in 1929. As a poet, essayist, writer, publisher and translator, he is one of the world’s most influential and internationally renowned German intellectuals.

Awards (selection):
Sonningprisen 2010
Premio d’Annunzio 2006
Premio Principe de Asturias 2002
Heinrich-Heine-Preis 1998
Erich-Maria-Remarque-Friedenspreis 1993
Heinrich Böll-Preis 1985
Büchner-Preis 1963
Deutscher Kritikerpreis 1962

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Since time immemorial man has developed ways of coping with the seemingly unpredictable vicissitudes of his existence. But the modern age was not content with the old incantations of the shamans and magicians. Which is why superstition and irrationality were replaced by probability, and people no longer spoke of fate but of chance.

Mathematicians developed models that were to be of assistance both for games of chance and more weighty predictions. »Probability theory« was the magic word designed not to control the unknown but at least to transfer it into formula.

In a manner that is both serious and amusing Hans Magnus Enzensberger follows the history of mathematical theories that seek to give us security and happiness: from Gauß’ normal distribution through to weather forecasts, from actuarial theory and forecasts of share performance through to the risk avoidance that has recently failed miserably on a global scale. In this instance, but also on adventure vacations and the mathematically calculable prospects of success in finding a partner, our luck is a precarious thing. And where the term of the infinite comes into play mathematics also have a tendency to become metaphysical. For Leibniz, God was the greatest of all mathematicians, and Kurt Gödel, one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th century even tried to use predicate logic to nail down the ontological proof of God conceived in the Middle Ages.

»Seemingly, classical theory has succeeded in exactly calculating the probability of outcomes in a game of dice or throw of the coin, but this depends on them being ideal coins and dice, such as do not exist in the real world, rather probability also underlies the law of large numbers. Only when the experiment is repeated a random number of times, is the calculated value attained. However, unfortunately, nobody sits at a gaming table for an infinitely long time given that human life is fairly short. «


»The title essay […] offers this highly insightful polymath meditating on probability […] Enzensberger then ranges forward to pondering the notion that »whenever one is dealing with probabilities, there’s always a catch.« Gödel, Turing, and Benoit Mandelbrot come into the conversation as Enzensberger mulls over fractals and the frequency distribution of outlier figures such as Christ and Stalin […]. In the book’s second short essay, On the Metaphysical Antics of Mathematics, Enzensberger is similarly resourceful, invoking Robert Musil on the wonder of numbers. […] Enzensberger is a world-class writer and intellect« Carlin Romano, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Other publications

Immer das Geld!/Nothing but Money! (2015)

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Tumult/Tumult (2014)

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Verschwunden!/Gone! (2014)

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Herrn Zetts Betrachtungen, oder Brosamen, die er fallen ließ, aufgelesen von seinen Zuhörern/Mr. Zed’s Considerations or Crumbs That He Let Fall, Gleaned From His Listeners (2013)

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Enzensbergers Panoptikum/Enzensberger’s Panoptikum (2012)

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Sanftes Monster Brüssel oder Die Entmündigung Europas/Tender Monster Brussels or the Disenfranchisement of Europe (2011)

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Album/Album (2010)

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Meine Lieblings-Flops, gefolgt von einem Ideen-Magazin/My Favourite Flops, followed by a wealth of ideas (2010)

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Hammerstein oder Der Eigensinn/Hammerstein or Idiosyncrasy (2008)

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Im Irrgarten der Intelligenz/The Labyrinth of Intelligence (2007)

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Schreckens Männer/Terror's Men (2006)

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Josefine und ich/Josefine and I (2006)

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Die Geschichte der Wolken/The History of the Clouds (2003)

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Die Elixiere der Wissenschaft/The Elixirs of Science (2002)

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Zickzack/Zigzag (1999)

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