What Are The Odds

One coin, two covers and a randomized approach.

July 2022

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Two different versions of Stanford magazine covers

When we invited artist Gary Taxali to illustrate our theme package on randomness and chance, he had just one request: Could he create two covers? Immediately, we knew we’d hired the right person.

To decide who would receive which cover, we held a small ceremony in our corner conference room. Art director Giorgia Virgili balanced a quarter on her thumb, heads up, and flicked it into the air. It came up tails. And with that, those of you who are undergraduate alumni won a lotto-ball spinner gazing somewhat skeptically at its happy-go-lucky pick, and those of you who came to Stanford for graduate school, or are connected to the university for another reason, got the thumbs-up from a spirited hand launching a slightly alarmed coin into flight.

The interesting thing about Giorgia’s quarter is that it was slightly more likely to finish heads-up. According to research led by professor of mathematics and of statistics Persi Diaconis, a “vigorously flipped” coin will come up the same way it started about 51 percent of the time. 

To bring you these stories and more, we didn’t just flip a coin.

At Stanford, scholars from computer science to philosophy to earth science to psychiatry are contemplating the many roles of randomness. It’s in our algorithms—or is it? We ascribe randomness to events in our daily lives. (Or is it chance? Or are they just improbable?) We have strategies to control it.

To bring you these stories and more, we didn’t just flip a coin. We scribbled months, days and years onto slips of paper, then had a writer’s 9-year-old son draw them from mixing bowls, because who better to randomly select an issue of the Stanford Daily? We gathered 25 recent books we enjoyed and used an online wheel spinner to select the lucky seven. We were sure that every single one of you would have a story worth telling, so we asked the Stanford Alumni Association’s data analysis manager to pick an alum randomly from the database. We talked to alums who recalled the tense scene in dorm lounges as they watched a government official pluck capsules from a container to determine not who won the lottery, but who would serve in Vietnam. We solicited your tales of happenstance, and you told us about everything from marriage to mourning. Two of you even sent in related anecdotes—purely by coincidence.

Our package of stories on randomness (and related concepts) begins here. If, by chance, you enjoy it, we hope you’ll let us know.

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at

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