I came across a book at the library this past week quite by coincidence. Well, maybe..
The book is Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence. Don’t be frightened by it being written by a mathematician, Joseph Mazur. It is about the seemingly improbable, surprising moments in our lives that seem to be coincidences. Maybe you attribute those events to serendipity. Or Fate. Look at some of the synonyms for coincidence: correspondence, agreement, accord, concurrence, consistency, conformity, fluke, harmony, compatibility. Do you attribute these kinds of events to coincidence or something else?
Others have said that “extremely improbable events are commonplace.” In 1866, the British mathematician Augustus De Morgan wrote, “Whatever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.”
What are the odds of being hit by lightning once? More than once? Roy Sullivan, a park ranger in Virginia who spent a lot of time outside in all kinds of weather was struck 7 times.
Enter the mathematical concepts of probability. This was one of those things that actually interested me in that rare interesting math class I was required to take.
Have you heard of the birthday paradox? What is the lowest number of people who must be in the same room to make it likely that at least two people will have the same birth day and month? Answer: 23. With 30 people in the room, the probability of a shared birthday is about 0.7 (or 70 percent).
Joseph Mazur knows that we are intrigued when someone wins the lottery four times in a row. How did you react when you learned that Abraham Lincoln had dreams that foreshadowed his own assassination? Creepy?
That statistics course you had to take may have taught you about correlation and causation. People confuse the two. Maybe cavemen believed that waking up caused the sun to appear. You talk about a friend you haven’t talked to in years and they call you on the phone that day. Correlation does not imply causation. A correlation between two variables does not imply that one causes the other.
Some of Mazur’s examples seem to be “pure coincidence.” You find your college copy of Moby Dick in a used bookstore in Paris on your first visit to the city? How do we explain the unlikelihood of strangers named Maria and Francisco, seeking each other in a hotel lobby, accidentally meet the wrong Francisco and the wrong Maria, another pair of strangers also looking for each other?
Mazur asserts that if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small the probability, it is bound to happen to someone at some time.
“What are the odds?” is what you might say in one of these situations. Like a déjà vu experience it might feel like some ripple just went through time, space or your universe.
In the paper, Methods for Studying Coincidences, mathematicians defined a coincidence as a “surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.”
In The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, David Hand says that principle “tells us that events which we regard as highly improbable occur because we got things wrong. If we can find out where we went wrong, then the improbable will become probable.”
It’s no coincidence that ukuleles are popping up in ads on Facebook and other websites this week for me, because I was searching and looking at them on Amazon.com last weekend.
There’s the joke about two guys in a Dublin pub drinking and discovering a series of amazing coincidences in their lives. Another patron listening is stunned by the coincidences. But the bartender says, “Nah, it’s just the O’Reilly twins have been drinking too much.”