numbers might reveal laws of social nature the same way astronomers had revealed the regularities of the heavens. “The idea that there were laws that stood in relation to society as Newton’s mechanics stood in relation to the motion of the planets was shared by many,” writes Ball.4

Gathering numbers was not enough, of course, to make the study of society a science in the Newtonian mold. Physics, as Newton had sculpted it, was the science of certainty, his dictatorial laws of motion determining how things happened. Statistics dealt not with such certainty, but rather displayed considerable variability. Much about human behavior seemed to depend on chance— the luck of the draw (as in games!). Dealing with people called for quantifying luck—leading to the mathematical analysis of probability.

Early studies of probability theory predated Newton, starting with the mid-17th-century work of Blaise Pascal and Pierre Fermat—their idea being to figure out how to win at dice or card games. An economic use of probability theory soon arose from insurance companies, which used statistical tables to gauge the risk of people dying at certain ages or the likelihood of fires or shipwrecks destroying insured property.

Probability became more useful to physics (and the rest of science) with the development of the theory of measurement errors during the 18th century, particularly in astronomy. Ironically, one of the key investigators in that statistical field was Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace, the French mathematician famous for his articulation of Newtonian determinism. For a being with intelligence capable of analyzing the circumstances of all the bodies in the universe, and the forces operating on them, all movements great and small could be foreseen by applying Newton’s laws, Laplace declared. “For it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.”5

Laplace recognized full well, though, that no human intelligence possessed such grand ability. So statistical methods were needed to deal with the unavoidable uncertainties afflicting human knowledge. Laplace wrote extensively on the issue of probability

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