Poisson Distribution

Throughout his novel, Pynchon consistently refers to the Poisson distribution, specifically in the argument between Pointsman and Mexico on pages 56-58 about Pavlovian phycology and statistics.  Pointsman argues that the bombings can be explained and understood and consequently predicted by using Pavlovian methods of stimulus and response.  Mexico believes the bombings to be completely independent and random, everywhere is just as likely to get hit as another area completely independent of other bombings.

Mexico uses the Poisson distribution to explain the bombs falling to Pointsman.  The Poisson distribution is a probability test commonly used in statistics that determines the probability for a event to occur in a given time and/or space, given that an event is completely independent of previous “successes.”  In this certain case a “success” would be a bomb falling, and the Poisson distribution helps to determine the average number of “successes” occur over a given time.  The Poisson distribution is characterized by a couple key rules.

  1. The number of successes in any given interval is completely independent of the number of success in another interval.
  2. The probability for success is the same in an interval is the same in all equal sized intervals.
  3. The probability for success in an interval is proportional to the size of the interval.
  4. The probability of more than success in an interval approaches zero as the interval becomes smaller.

    By noting the frequency of the bombs, Mexico could plot the data and using the mean of bomb droppings over a certain period of time, could get a probability on how often a bomb would drop.  The Poisson distribution on a graph is an arc with its center the highest point.  By using these methods, Mexico is able to boil down to a number the probability of a bomb falling over a certain area.  One thing I found quite interesting in my research was the one of the first known uses of this method was to determine how many Prussian soldiers died every year from horse kicks.  Its origins were used for death statistics, just like Roger is now using for bomb droppings, which resulted in death. 

            I think this is a very important passage to understanding Mexico and his point of view about the war, and presumably a very popular opinion at the time.  By reducing the bombings to simple numbers and statistics, it dehumanizes the whole process.  Mexico isn’t dealing with life and death, he is dealing with equations and numbers, making it easier to separate emotion from making difficult decisions in war time.  I think it is very obvious Nihilism, even Prentice remarks this as “cheap nihilism.”  Nihilism the way Mexico uses it helps him deal with the massive amount of human death that he sees on a constant basis, he often masks it and as a result is a cynic.  The way statistics intertwines with nihilism in this novel it as attempt to try and forget the past, saying it has to relevance to future events, they are completely independent, but as we know the past is something that we cannot escape from no matter how terrible it is. 



Works Cited

Keller, Gerald. Statistics for Management and Economics. Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2014. Print.

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2 Responses to Poisson Distribution

  1. talarico4 says:

    I thought this post was really interesting and informative. You definitely found some good examples from Pynchon’s novel that could be connected to your research. I think also with your research, it helps to make more clear what Pynchon was aiming for in this particular part of the novel. The connection to the horse kicks and the bomb droppings was particularly interesting as well.

  2. elizabeth829 says:

    Okay not going to lie, reading those rules kind of twisted my brain a little bit but one thing about this poisson distribution that is interesting to me is that Mexico is supposed to represent the randomness and inability to predict the falling of the bombs as opposed to Pointsman’s desire to find patterns and reasons. YET Mexico is so focused on this equation which simultaneously takes away from his theory of “random occurrence” and proves it at the same time. Kind of ironic?

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