## Coincidences

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.”

theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/02/the-true-meaning-of-coincidences/

washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-improbability-principle…

Connecting with Coincidence: The New Science for Using Synchronicity and Serendipity in Your Life

There Are No Accidents: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives

## In The Unlikely Event

As I packed for a trip to Europe recently, my thoughts, and more so the thoughts of my wife, turned to airports, airplanes, bombs and terrorism. It is an unfortunate way to approach a trip, but almost inevitable today, especially if you are someone who only travels occasionally.

On my last domestic trip, it was the first time I saw at Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey fully equipped soldiers with helmets, body armor and automatic rifles on patrol. Did it make me feel more secure? No, I felt more threatened because it was reminder of earlier tragic events.

My wife even wanted to do some non-travel things before we left concerning our grown-up children, accounts, our will and such “in the unlikely event” that something happens to us on our travels.

It is a contemporary reality that young and old alike need to consider and come to some terms with the natural and technological and social disasters that are a regular part of the news.  For my own children, the attack on the not-so-far-away Twin Towers on 9/11/01 will be an unfortunate but key event of their youth.

As teachers, my wife and I were profoundly affected by the shootings at Columbine and other schools which felt like such a real possibility in our own lives and those of our children. That came much too close to home in 2007 when my son’s class at Virginia Tech was part of the shootings that occurred there.

My son was luckily, or miraculously, not hurt that day. Different people take a different take on that. I have gone back and forth myself in my thinking about that day. He is a faithful Hokie alum and rarely talks about that day. His professor who was killed is a hero to me.

One of his classmates who was shot, Colin Goddard, has become very active in gun violence prevention issues. He joined the Brady Campaign and works as a Senior Policy Advocate for Everytown for Gun Safety. He  was the subject of a documentary named “Living for 32” that shows how easily anyone can obtain a firearm in the United States without a background check.

A year ago, I read a book that came to mind again when my wife used that phrase which is the book’s title.  In The Unlikely Event is a novel based on real incidents and is a kind of memoir by Judy Blume.

Blume sets the novel in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey and mostly in the winter of 1951-52, when three catastrophic plane crashes occurred in less than two months.

Her protagonist, Miri Ammerman, returns to her hometown in 1987  to attend a commemoration.

The first plane that crashed barely missed exploding into a junior high school. The second crash was at an all-girls’ high school. The third crash was at an orphanage. It seemed like Fate or some power had targeted children.

The events forced the closure of Newark Airport for some months.

Miri was fifteen and before these crashes life was more about being in love for the first time and Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” and getting Elizabeth Taylor haircuts and family and friends.

Before that winter, it was a time was when airline travel was new and exciting. Everyone dreamed of going somewhere by plane. Being a stewardess was a glamorous job that showed up in novels, movies, TV and Playboy cartoons.

Of course, it was also a time of atomic-bomb hysteria, rumors of Communist threats and Civil Defense drills in schools, so the world could be seen through rose-colored or dark gray glasses depending on the day.

A succession of airplanes falling mysteriously from the sky would cause all kinds of rumors today, just as it did then.

Blume mixes in all of this uncertainty about life in a variety of ways. One day a woman shows up on the Ammermans’ doorstep, insisting Miri is her niece. She had seen a resemblance to her brother in a photo of the girl shown to her by a friend. Miri’s mother raised her daughter on her own and had refused to share any details about her father.

She falls in love with a boy from an orphanage in town. He’s a great guy and becomes a hero after he rescues survivors from the third plane crash. Is he her future? Can we contemplate a future in such an uncertain world when unlikely events seem to happen?

Judy Blume spent her childhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey, making up stories inside her head and eventually writing them down as an adult and becoming a very successful author.

I grew up in the same part of New Jersey fifteen years later than Judy Blume, but a lot of her stories feel like my own childhood, adolescence and adulthood.  She is better known for her young adult novels but has written three novels for adults and sold 80+ million copies of her books.

Three planes crash in a small town in New Jersey over the course of just two short months are unlikely events, but it happened. The attacks on the Twin Towers just across the river from that NJ town on 9/11 was also an unlikely event, but it happened.

In its time, those plane crashes were inexplicable. Communists? Martians? God? So many tragedies today – earthquakes, bombings – have an “explanation” but still seem inexplicable. The “why” of these events never seems to be fully answered.

Is Blume warning us? No, I think she wants us not be afraid to get on a plane, or take risks in life. Of course we should make plans and be cautious, but she reminds us that life is made up of unlikely events and that, fortunately, they “aren’t all bad. There are good ones, too.”