Visualizing Stirling’s Approximation With Highcharts

July 5, 2016

(This article was first published on Ripples, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

I said, “Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man”, He said, “That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can” (The Weight, The Band)

It is quite easy to calculate the probability of obtaining the same number of heads and tails when tossing a coin N times, and N is even. There are 2^{N} possible outcomes and only C_{N/2}^{N} are favorable so the exact probability is the quotient of these numbers (# of favorable divided by # of possible).

There is another way to approximate this number incredibly well: to use the Stirling’s formula, which is 1/\sqrt{\pi\cdot N/2}

This plot represents both calculations for N from 2 to 200:


Although for small values of N, Stirling’s approximation tends to overestimate probability …

Stirling 2

… is extremely precise as N becomes bigger:

Stirling 3

James Stirling published this amazing formula in 1730. It simplifies the calculus to the extreme and also gives a quick way to obtain the answer to a very interesting question: How many tosses are needed to be sure that the probability of obtaining the same number of heads and tails is under any given threshold? Just solve the formula for N and you will obtain the answer. And, also, the formula is another example of the presence of pi in the most unexpected places, as happens here.

Just another thing: the more I use highcharter package the more I like it.

This is the code:

data.frame(N=seq(from=2, by=2, length.out = 100)) %>%
  mutate(Exact=choose(N,N/2)/2**N, Stirling=1/sqrt(pi*N/2))->data
hc <- highchart() %>% 
  hc_title(text = "Stirling's Approximation") %>% 
  hc_subtitle(text = "How likely is getting 50% heads and 50% tails tossing a coin N times?") %>% 
  hc_xAxis(title = list(text = "N: Number of tosses"), categories = data$N) %>% 
  hc_yAxis(title = list(text = "Probability"), labels = list(format = "{value}%", useHTML = TRUE)) %>% 
  hc_add_series(name = "Stirling", data = data$Stirling*100,  marker = list(enabled = FALSE), color="blue") %>% 
  hc_add_series(name = "Exact", data = data$Exact*100,  marker = list(enabled = FALSE), color="lightblue") %>% 
  hc_tooltip(formatter = JS("function(){return ('Number of tosses: '+this.x+'
Probability: '+Highcharts.numberFormat(this.y, 2)+'%')}")) %>% hc_exporting(enabled = TRUE) %>% hc_chart(zoomType = "xy") hc

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