Never mind the statistics and grim improbabilities.
A record-breaking $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot that's driving a national frenzy is all about dreams, not cold, harsh reality.
Talk to a statistician or mathematician in search of secrets to increase your odds of becoming the next Powerball multimillionaire and you'll likely feel sheepish as you plunk down $2 for Wednesday's almost unfathomable jackpot. "I think 110 people won a lottery, not the top prize … by using numbers on a fortune cookie," said University of Minnesota mathematician Doug Arnold. But mostly it's random and you might as well have a computer generate the numbers, he said.
To win, a player will have to match the five numbers plus the Powerball among 292.2 million possible combinations.
That's an incredible long shot, so Arnold, being a numbers man, isn't about to buy a lottery ticket. "If you analyze it enough, it's not so much fun," he said. "The likely chance of dying by any cause in the next 30 seconds is higher than winning the Powerball," he said. "Certainly if you have to get in a car and drive to buy a Powerball ticket and drive back home, your chance of dying in a car accident is greater than winning the jackpot."
But gigantic lotteries lure people in much like roller coasters are a draw for some people. "You don't get anywhere on a roller coaster. But you might buy a ticket for a roller coaster because you may enjoy the ride."
The Powerball is cheap fun, said Doug Hartmann, a U sociology professor.
"When the Powerball gets big like this … it's the sense of being part of a larger story that becomes way more important," he said. "It's the collective experience of dreaming and fantasizing. It's about being part of the office pool or the family where you get a ticket or two and everybody talks about it over dinner."
8 Minnesota retailers with the most big prize winners
Since 2006, this is where winners most frequently bought tickets that resulted in prizes of at least $10,000
Source: Minnesota State Lottery
"The lottery promotions talk about it tongue-in-cheek, but they really are selling dreams, not really selling the chance to make money," Hartmann said.
Powerball ticket sales in Minnesota are expected to top $15 million for Wednesday's drawing, breaking Saturday's record of $13.1 million, said Debbie Hoffmann, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Lottery. The record before that was $10.8 million, set on Nov. 28, 2012, for a $587 million jackpot.
As a sociologist, Hartmann can't help but look at the bigger societal picture when talking about lotteries. "It is clear that poor people play lotteries and invest more of their money per capita in lotteries than people who are richer," he said. It's why lottery critics think of it as a regressive tax because it raises a lot of money for some states from people who are the least well off, Hartmann said. "Those are the moral questions."
But even for those of modest means, a couple bucks is a cheap escape from the realities and pressures of daily life, Hartmann said. "It's a lot cheaper than going on a cruise vacation."
And it brings people together. Hartmann may buy a ticket at the urging of his persuasive 18-year-old daughter. "It will be a father-daughter bonding experience," he said.
Even previous Powerball winners are standing in line for a chance to win the world's biggest lottery jackpot.
"I bought five on Saturday," said a past Minnesota Powerball winner, who asked that her name not be used. "I had no matching numbers." And then she sighed. "And I'll probably buy five more [for Wednesday]."
"I think everyone buys one when it gets this big," she said. "I think it's just the dream."
But she gets a little concerned thinking about anyone who might win a billion-dollar jackpot. "It would be daunting to have to deal with that much money," she said. "I almost hope it's a pool of people who win. It's just too much money for one person to come upon one day."
Most who buy lottery tickets for Wednesday's Powerball jackpot won't have to worry whether their lives will be upended by wealth.
The odds just aren't in your favor, said Jeff Miecznikowski, associate professor of biostatistics at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York. "Rare things do happen," acknowledged Miecznikowski, who mines data in search of answers regarding cancer. "But that rare thing isn't going to happen to me and it's not going to happen to you."
Still, Miecznikowski — a guy who advises people to put the $2 for a lottery ticket toward a pint of beer — may pony up for a ticket this week at his wife's urging. "Wouldn't it be ironic," he said, "if the guy who's going around telling everyone not to buy Powerball tickets wins this huge Powerball lottery?"
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788