Lightning vs the Lottery

The 30th of March, 2012 saw the biggest lottery jackpot in World history. The pre-tax total was approximately 640 million dollars, and despite the odds of winning being rather narrow, nearly 1.4 billion dollars was spent on lottery tickets 1.

Whenever there is a large lottery jackpot, the same crop of articles always appear, such as:

  • What you could buy with $X million
  • How to pick your numbers
  • 10 things more likely to happen than winning

I'm going to focus on the last one, because the statistics are usually wrong (or rather, used incorrectly).

The odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are 1 in 179 million. That means that there are 179 million different number combinations that can occur. If you buy one ticket, there us a 1 in 179 million chance your numbers will come up. Buy two tickets (with different numbers), and the odds are halved. Nothing too complicated.

Normally there's something about how much more likely it is that you'll be struck by lightning than win the jackpot. The odds of being hit by a lightning strike in the US are 1 in 10,000 2. This makes it sound much more likely, but these odds are spread over an average lifetime (80 years) rather than a single event (a lottery drawing).

A slightly more realistic set of odds would be: if you buy a lottery ticket, what are the chances of you being struck by lightning before the draw compared to winning the jackpot?

Odds of being struck in a year 1/775,000
Time between lottery draws 3 4 days
Odds of being struck in 1 day 1/282,875,000
Odds of being struck in 4 days 1/70,718,750

Assuming you buy a ticket as soon as the previous draw ends, you have nearly a 1 in 71 million chance of being hit by lightning. Of course, this doesn't take into account the current season or state you live in (people in Florida are twice as likely to be killed or injured than people in Michigan 4).

So, in order to be more likely to win the jackpot than being zapped by Zeus, just buy two tickets.

Footnotes:

1

According to ABC news (What $1.46B Spent on Mega Millions Could Buy), Americans spent nearly $1.5 billion on lottery tickets.

3

The Mega Millions lottery is drawn every Tuesday and Friday, which gives 4 days between the Friday and Tuesday draw.

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