Probability theory

Probability theory is the branch of mathematics concerned with probability. Although there are several different probability interpretations, probability theory treats the concept in a rigorous mathematical manner by expressing it through a set of axioms. Typically these axioms formalise probability in terms of a probability space, which assigns a measure taking values between 0 and 1, termed the probability measure, to a set of outcomes called the sample space. Any specified subset of the sample space is called an event. Central subjects in probability theory include discrete and continuous random variables, probability distributions, and stochastic processes, which provide mathematical abstractions of non-deterministic or uncertain processes or measured quantities that may either be single occurrences or evolve over time in a random fashion. Although it is not possible to perfectly predict random events, much can be said about their behavior. Two major results in probability theory describing such behaviour are the law of large numbers and the central limit theorem.

As a mathematical foundation for statistics, probability theory is essential to many human activities that involve quantitative analysis of data.[1] Methods of probability theory also apply to descriptions of complex systems given only partial knowledge of their state, as in statistical mechanics or sequential estimation. A great discovery of twentieth-century physics was the probabilistic nature of physical phenomena at atomic scales, described in quantum mechanics.[2][unreliable source?]

The modern mathematical theory of probability has its roots in attempts to analyze games of chance by Gerolamo Cardano in the sixteenth century, and by Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century (for example the "problem of points").[3] Christiaan Huygens published a book on the subject in 1657[4] and in the 19th century, Pierre Laplace completed what is today considered the classic interpretation.[5]

Initially, probability theory mainly considered discrete events, and its methods were mainly combinatorial. Eventually, analytical considerations compelled the incorporation of continuous variables into the theory.

This culminated in modern probability theory, on foundations laid by Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov. Kolmogorov combined the notion of sample space, introduced by Richard von Mises, and measure theory and presented his axiom system for probability theory in 1933. This became the mostly undisputed axiomatic basis for modern probability theory; but, alternatives exist, such as the adoption of finite rather than countable additivity by Bruno de Finetti.[6]

Most introductions to probability theory treat discrete probability distributions and continuous probability distributions separately. The measure theory-based treatment of probability covers the discrete, continuous, a mix of the two, and more.

Discrete probability theory deals with events that occur in countable sample spaces.

Examples: Throwing dice, experiments with decks of cards, random walk, and tossing coins

Classical definition: Initially the probability of an event to occur was defined as the number of cases favorable for the event, over the number of total outcomes possible in an equiprobable sample space: see Classical definition of probability.

So, the probability of the entire sample space is 1, and the probability of the null event is 0.

Continuous probability theory deals with events that occur in a continuous sample space.

Classical definition: The classical definition breaks down when confronted with the continuous case. See Bertrand's paradox.

In case the probability density function exists, this can be written as

The raison d'être of the measure-theoretic treatment of probability is that it unifies the discrete and the continuous cases, and makes the difference a question of which measure is used. Furthermore, it covers distributions that are neither discrete nor continuous nor mixtures of the two.

Other distributions may not even be a mix, for example, the Cantor distribution has no positive probability for any single point, neither does it have a density. The modern approach to probability theory solves these problems using measure theory to define the probability space:

When it's convenient to work with a dominating measure, the Radon-Nikodym theorem is used to define a density as the Radon-Nikodym derivative of the probability distribution of interest with respect to this dominating measure. Discrete densities are usually defined as this derivative with respect to a counting measure over the set of all possible outcomes. Densities for absolutely continuous distributions are usually defined as this derivative with respect to the Lebesgue measure. If a theorem can be proved in this general setting, it holds for both discrete and continuous distributions as well as others; separate proofs are not required for discrete and continuous distributions.

Certain random variables occur very often in probability theory because they well describe many natural or physical processes. Their distributions, therefore, have gained special importance in probability theory. Some fundamental discrete distributions are the discrete uniform, Bernoulli, binomial, negative binomial, Poisson and geometric distributions. Important continuous distributions include the continuous uniform, normal, exponential, gamma and beta distributions.

In probability theory, there are several notions of convergence for random variables. They are listed below in the order of strength, i.e., any subsequent notion of convergence in the list implies convergence according to all of the preceding notions.

As the names indicate, weak convergence is weaker than strong convergence. In fact, strong convergence implies convergence in probability, and convergence in probability implies weak convergence. The reverse statements are not always true.

Common intuition suggests that if a fair coin is tossed many times, then roughly half of the time it will turn up heads, and the other half it will turn up tails. Furthermore, the more often the coin is tossed, the more likely it should be that the ratio of the number of heads to the number of tails will approach unity. Modern probability theory provides a formal version of this intuitive idea, known as the law of large numbers. This law is remarkable because it is not assumed in the foundations of probability theory, but instead emerges from these foundations as a theorem. Since it links theoretically derived probabilities to their actual frequency of occurrence in the real world, the law of large numbers is considered as a pillar in the history of statistical theory and has had widespread influence.[9]

It is in the different forms of convergence of random variables that separates the weak and the strong law of large numbers[10]

It follows from the LLN that if an event of probability p is observed repeatedly during independent experiments, the ratio of the observed frequency of that event to the total number of repetitions converges towards p.

"The central limit theorem (CLT) is one of the great results of mathematics." (Chapter 18 in[11]) It explains the ubiquitous occurrence of the normal distribution in nature.

For some classes of random variables the classic central limit theorem works rather fast (see Berry–Esseen theorem), for example the distributions with finite first, second, and third moment from the exponential family; on the other hand, for some random variables of the heavy tail and fat tail variety, it works very slowly or may not work at all: in such cases one may use the Generalized Central Limit Theorem (GCLT).

The first major treatise blending calculus with probability theory, originally in French: Théorie Analytique des Probabilités.
An English translation by Nathan Morrison appeared under the title Foundations of the Theory of Probability (Chelsea, New York) in 1950, with a second edition in 1956.