INQ's Magic 8 Ball: Can You Game The System & Cheat Fate

Shake the astronaut’s helmet, and the mysteries of the universe are revealed: the oracle has spoken! Or has it? How likely are you to get the answer you want?  Did you ever wonder why the original Magic 8-ball is…well, an 8-ball? And what’s in that blue liquid? Read on, and all will be revealed!

Summer Curiosity Box by VSAUCE

First of all, this “fortune teller” does not, of course, really tell the future. Floating inside your helmet is an icosahedron, a 20-sided polygon (if you’re a gamer, you may call it a d20). That icosahedron has roughly the same chance of coming up on any one of the sides, so you have about the same chance of getting any given answer; fortune doesn’t really come into it, because other than minor manufacturing blips that affect that randomness, when used normally there’s no known way to influence which side comes up…but the answers aren’t exactly random, either!

See, if you know the system, you can tailor your questions to have a higher chance of getting the response you want; game the system and cheat the fates, if you will.  The secret is this: the answers aren’t evenly assigned.  Back when the creator of the original Magic 8-Ball was coming up with answers, he consulted with University of Cincinnati psychologist Lucien Cohen, who devised the mix generally still used today: 10 affirmative answers, 5 negative, and 5 neutral.  And because we think curiosity is a positive force, the Astronaut 8 Ball you’re holding does, too: it has 11 affirmative answers, 5 negative, and 4 neutral.  So you’re more than twice as likely to get a positive answer, something to keep in mind as you come up with questions for your helmeted oracle.

And while we’re on it – the modern 8 ball isn’t exactly associated with the wisdom of the ancient sages, so why is it shaped like an 8-ball at all? It turns out your Astronaut 8-ball shares something in common with its ancestor: neither of them are ball-shaped. In the 1940s, inventor Albert C. Carter, son of a famous Cincinnati fortune-teller, patented a tube with two floating dice inside that would give you answers; it was called the “Syco-Seer,” which is kind of awesome.

Years later, the company that made the tube decided to go with more of a crystal ball theme, and changed the shape. But those didn’t sell, and the company was stuck with a warehouse full of vaguely ball-shaped fortune telling devices. Then fate – in the form of the the Brunswick Billiards Co. – called.  They wanted to do an advertising promotion using the crystal balls, but could Carter’s company make them look like balls from a pool table?  Maybe…an 8-ball?  And BOOM, they created a toy that sells over a million a year.

Finally, let’s hit you with some chemistry as the last great mystery of the b-ball is revealed: what’s in that fluid?  Well, as you might guess, the liquid is almost entirely water: 99.8%, in fact. But it’s that last 0.2% that’s interesting: 0.1% of it is a dye called “Acid Blue 93” (chemical formula C37H27N3Na2O9S3), which is often used in biology when preparing microscope slides! In fact, Acid Blue is the best slide colorant for use in mycology, the study of fungi. The last 0.1% is dimethyloldimethyl hydantoin (chemical formula C7H12N2O4), a preservative used in products like household cleaners and cosmetics. It works by slowly releasing formaldehyde, which kills any microorganisms that might grow in whatever you mix it with.

So there you have it!  But no matter how much fun you have with Inq’s Astronaut 8-Ball (and we hope it’s a lot), don’t forget you’re still in control our your own destiny!  Or as Shakespeare put it, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

(Um…not that you’re at fault for anything.  We love you!)