Throughout history, people have been captivated by the lottery—that game of chance that gives some the opportunity to win a life-changing sum of money. While there are plenty of pitfalls, there is also a big upside to winning. Dave Gulley, a professor of economics at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., explains that the math behind this popular pastime is actually quite simple. It all comes down to factorials, which are the sums you get by multiplying a number against each of the numbers below it. For example, 3 * 2 * 1 = 6. The more numbers you add to the list, the higher the factorial becomes, and the more likely you are to hit it big.
The earliest known lotteries date back to the Roman Empire, when they were used to distribute items of unequal value at dinner parties. But the modern form of the lottery began in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when various towns held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications or to help the poor.
Today, lotteries use strict security measures to prevent fraud, such as video surveillance and tamper-evident seals. They also conduct regular independent audits and require extensive training and background checks for lottery employees to ensure they are trustworthy. And they pay a good chunk of their profits to reputable research organizations that analyze the odds of winning.
Despite the controversy, lotteries continue to be a popular source of income for many Americans, with New York and California generating more than $100 billion in ticket sales per year. And although the winners may be happy, the state governments that run them are the ones who really “win.” Each allocates a portion of its lottery revenue to different government spending projects, from education and senior citizen support to construction and environmental protection.