International Astronomy Day happens every year and alternates between Spring and Autumn, with this year’s date set for the 11th of May. It is hard to imagine a mind devoted to unpicking the mysteries of the universe caring too much about a promotional event. Sheldon Cooper taking time out of his obsessions to try and nurture them in others is as likely as a swift, no-nonsense British retreat from the EU.
Yet, in 1973 Doug Berger, the president of the Astronomical Association of Northern California, set up an arrangement of telescopes in well-populated urban areas within the county to allow passers-by a chance glimpse at the stars he felt so passionately about and from that day on, International Astronomy Day has found a place on our Gregorian calendar.
A Very Short History of Astronomy
Astronomy as a branch of mathematics was first conceived in Ancient Greece, 4 centuries before the birth of Christ, but our interest in the stars precedes even that. There is a theory that bones found in Africa were marked in a way that tracked the phases of the moon and if true would date back to over 35,000 BC.
Whilst that theory has been heavily criticised there has been no contest over the 8000-year-old findings that were uncovered in the Dee River valley of Scotland’s Aberdeenshire in 2004. 12 large pits mimicking the phases of the moon revealed what is now considered to be the world’s oldest calendar and one of the most significant and revealing archaeological finds of the century. We now know that humanity could trace the passage of time long before any of the world’s major civilisations were formed.
The origins of the astronomy devised by the Ancient Greeks was rooted in Mesopotamia. The first proof we have of astronomical events meeting mathematics to form predictions can be found in Ancient Babylon. Tablets were unearthed that contain documentation of the mathematics needed to determine changes in the length of daylight over a solar year. This is the point where astronomy and astrology begin to go their separate ways.
As they did with most things the Greeks took the field of astronomy and advanced it. They created 3-dimensional models to help depict the movement of the planets, a solar system that placed Earth at the centre. Despite the error it was the Ancient Greeks who discovered that the Earth spins on an axis. Both Plato and Aristotle developed theories about the formation of the universe that would accepted across Western Europe until the 16th century.
In the 3rd century BC Aristarchus of Samos became the first scientist to work out, with great accuracy, the circumference of the Earth. The Antikythera mechanism, an analogue computer, was used by the Greeks in 150BC to calculate the movements of the sun, moon and possibly even the planets. This is by far the most scientific approach to astronomy that world would see until the Renaissance, which would disprove many theories but would also highlight just how advanced and at times, how close the science of an ancient civilisation could be.
At the heart of all scientific discovery is questioning. It is the formation of our imaginations to help explain how the world around us works. With astronomy we began by asking what the lights in the sky are and soon discovered that out of that vast cosmos we were able to understand our own place on our own tiny speck of universal dust that little better. Our understanding of time and its passing began the moment we looked up into the night sky.
The ancient thinkers who paid the most attention noticed patterns could be formed. They used their knowledge of the moon and the stars to form what now seem like some very basic predictions. With those predictions they were able to plan ahead. They knew what to plant and when to plant it and creating a move away from hunting and gathering into farming and the birth of our great civilisations. This early form of probability might a lot simpler than the branch of mathematics that exists today, but its premise has never really changed. It is perhaps then unsurprising that some of history’s most famous astronomers also took a keen interest in probability and in some instances how that could prove profitable.
Astronomers and Probability
Three names, one you will know and the other two you would only have heard if you had an interest in astronomy or probability: Galileo, Cardano and Kepler were all renowned figures within the Renaissance, all mathematicians and astronomers who took an interest in trying to predict the outcome of future events.
This is hardly surprising given that all scientific theory is in a sense probability until we can prove that it is a certainty, something that rarely happens given the exponential complexities that arise as we learn more about the universe. Let’s not forget that science is based on observations and the more we discover the more realise just how limited those observations are.
The same principles can be applied to gambling as we have a very limited range of observations to tap into. If you are playing blackjack you will struggle know what the dealer has in his hand or what cards are yet to be played. If you gamble on horse racing you will know the form, the conditions and what jockeys are riding that day. You may even be privy to some exclusive insider information, but at the end of the day you will never know what each horse is thinking or feeling before it trots up to that starting line.
The point is that astronomers want to learn as much about the universe as they can so that they can understand where that might take us. For some, like Galileo, certain games of chance reduced the parameters and gave them an opportunity to apply mathematics in a way that allowed them to make successful predictions.
Galileo took an interest in a dice game called Passedix, a game described by Charles Cotton in The Compleat Gamester (1674) as:
“…a Game at dice to be played at but by two, and it is performed with three Dice. The Caster throws continually until he hath thrown Dubblets under ten, and then he is out and loseth; or Dubblets above ten, and then he passeth and wins.”
It is rumoured to have been the game that Roman soldiers played whilst they divvied out Jesus Christ’s belongings after his crucifixion. So popular was the game that it was played by both rich and poor and despite most having never heard of it today it would have been the poker of its day.
Galileo, born in the same year as Shakespeare (1564) began his time at the University of Pisa as a student of medicine before becoming a professor of mathematics at the tender age of 25. Whilst working there Galileo was commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to explain a paradox that he had noticed and left him frustrated whilst playing Passedix. He wanted to know: “Why, although there were an equal number of 6 partitions of the numbers 9 and 10, did experience state that the chance of throwing a total 9 with three fair dice was less than that of throwing a total of 10?”
In essence, what Galileo went on to prove was that although 9, 10, 11 and 12 could all be made using the same number of combinations (6 in total) some combinations (most notably 3 + 3 + 3) came up less often than others because there was less potential for them to do so. He went on to illustrate this theory through a sequence of repeated, painstaking simulations that we would have a computer do for us today and then devised a series of equations that I am in no way qualified to explain to support his findings. Many would argue that with this set of experiments and with the resulting findings the basis for the branch of mathematics we call probability was born.
However, it is not Galileo who is cited as the founding father of probability, but a lesser known Italian scientist called Gerolamo Cardano. As with many mathematicians during the Renaissance Cardano did not specialise in one individual field. A polymath, he could be referred to as a mathematician, physician, biologist, physicist, chemist, astrologer, astronomer, philosopher, writer, and gambler. His book, “The Book on Games of Chance: The 16th Century Treatise on Probability”, written in 1564 but not published until 1663 has to be considered one of the earliest texts on gambling and probability ever written.
Much of Cardano’s influence has gone unnoticed, yet at the height of his powers he was an advisor to some of the influential men in Italy, an inventor of technologies that would change the world and is arguably the founding father of probability and quantum physics, along with pioneering the sequencing of negative numbers and acknowledging the existence of imaginary numbers.
On top of all of that he loved to gamble and has a back story just as remarkable as that of his life’s work. He wrote in his autobiography that whilst playing cards in Venice he noticed that his opponent was cheating: “When I observed that the cards were marked, I impetuously slashed his face with my poniard,” Cardano said, “though not deeply.”
He was considered a blasphemer, not just for his theories that undermined religious doctrine but also for his work that questioned that of the Greek philosophers. His eldest son was found guilty of poisoning his own wife after he discovered that his three children were not really his and lost his head for his efforts. His other son, stole from him to feed a gambling habit and was written out of Cardano’s will. He was arrested and stripped of his professorship for unknown reasons, spent time in prison before moving to Rome where he worked on completing his autobiography before he died, which was rumoured to have been at his own hand.
Cardano, despite all of his social failings was the father of modern gambling theory. The first person to write at length about the powers of probability on predicting the outcome of certain games of chance. Everyone from Stanford Wong to Edward O. Thorp owe a little something to work of Gerolamo Cardano.
Our final Renaissance man saw his interest in probability born from the fires of the Great Comet of 1577. After witnessing a celestial event of such magnitude Johannes Kepler developed a thirst to understand more about the universe. One of his earliest works “The Cosmographic Mystery” was written in defence and support of the Copernican theory that the sun is positioned in the centre of our solar system.
In his book, “Astromonia Nova” he argued that each planet in out solar system followed a path around the sun, defining his self-titled debut: Kepler’s first law of planetary motion. He also wrote a novel called “Somnium” (something he was ridiculed for at the time), one of the earliest examples of science fiction.
His place within the history of gambling is linked directly to both probability and astronomy. This came to pass in 1604 when a new star appeared in the sky. He published his theory in a book titled “De stella nova” in which he argued that the star had appeared not because of a chance occurrence of atoms and used further calculations to predict when the another such celestial event might occur.
Not a gambler himself, but through this work Keplar was able to make his own, unassuming contribution to probability and as such to the conscious decisions that all gamblers make when they place what they believe is an informed wager.
Ultimately the study of astronomy and mathematics is the study of what is happening, what has happened and how that information can lead us to understand what might happen in the cosmos. Those grand, complex theories can often be stripped down and applied to something a little less vast, a little less significant. The theories of probability that many gamblers tap into can draw a line back to the thinkers of the Renaissance, back even further to Ancient Greece and further still to those stone age communities who crawled out of their caves and looked upwards long enough to steady their focus on looking forwards.
Astronomy and Slots
The stars the moon and the sky above are constant source of inspiration for slots designers. And why not? The stars and the moon are shiny and spaceflight is glamorous, dangerous and darn right exciting.
As ever, I’ll be bringing you a few games that highlight the best of this theme. There will be 5 games in total, each scoring the at least 7 out of 10 on initial review. Without wasting any more of your time here are our 5 favourite slots games inspired by the cosmos.
Slots games don’t much more all-time-favourity than this behemoth. If you’ve played a slots game you’ve probably had a shot of this one at some point. It has remained in the top 5 most played games for as long as I can remember, which means you don’t me to tell you anything about it. If you haven’t played it, think of this owning record player and never having listened to “Dark Side of the Moon”.
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Ticket to the Stars
This is a new game on our list, one that was released just a few months ago. Like most Quickspin games it looks amazing and has a decent number of features to keep you interested. Think of this as the Jetsons but for the 21st century… And if you don’t know what the Jetsons are, then well done on being young.
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This game is based on the reimaging of the classic 70s sci fi drama that pits men against machine in an epic battle of survival. The new series paved new ground in the quality that we now expect from our science fiction dramas. Excellent acting, realistic design and an enthralling continuous storyline. Just don’t get me started on the ending. The game meets those expectations, looking fantastic and filled with a whole host of fun features.
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It pains me to have found this game today and not last week because this isn’t a game that will impress you with its looks or its features, this game is all about the house edge. At just over 2% you’ll need to peer through a mighty telescope to find a bunch of stars offering better value for money that Starmania.
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Cosmic Fortune is another cracking game brought to you by those stargazers at Net Entertainment. What more is there to say other than the game looks good, that it has some great features and that it offers decent value for money. Don’t tell anyone but I actually prefer this to Starburst.
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