What Are the Odds?\r\nCoincidences - Part Two\r\n\r\n\u201cCoincidence is God\u2019s way of remaining anonymous.\u201d\u00a0Attributed to Albert Einstein, among several others.\u00a0\r\n\r\nAuthor\u2019s note: The truth about these ubiquitous quotes in media and literature is that nobody knows who said what. Just look at all the quotes wrongly attributed to Babe Ruth. But it\u2019s fun to read them, so I will continue sliding them in once in a while.\r\n\r\nOK, now back to the business at hand - coincidences.\u00a0\r\n\r\nIn last week\u2019s column, I left you with a question.\u00a0\r\n\r\nHow many individuals would you have to cram into a high school gym to have a 50\/50 chance that two of those people will share a birth date?\u00a0\r\n\r\nWhen I was posed with the same question, I started doing the math in my head. It went something along the line of 365 times 2 or 1 in 730. But, I was wrong - way wrong.\r\n\r\nYou can look up the actual equation if you wish, but the answer is 23. That is, if you get 23 people into that high school gym, you have a 50% chance of getting two people with the same birth month and date. Probably, not what you would have guessed, right?\r\n\r\nBut unlike most fishermen and all politicians, numbers don\u2019t lie.\r\n\r\nRadiolab is a National Public Radio broadcast and podcast that calls itself a \u201ccuriosity bender.\u201d This show asks penetrating questions about everything from science to history.\u00a0\r\n\r\nRadiolab employs the very best investigative journalism to explore and explain the mysteries that make our lives more enjoyable. Sometimes it shoots dead the unicorn we have all been believing in. But it does so in the name of science and rational thinking.\r\n\r\nIt is my sincerest hope that none of us wish to be fooled.\r\n\r\nA 2009 episode of Radiolab kicked off a program about coincidences with the story of 10-year-old Laura Buxton. In 2001, Laura released a red balloon from her home in Northern England. She had written a message for its finder upon the balloon, \u201cPlease return to Laura Buxton.\u201d\r\n\r\nYou can imagine her surprise when she gets a letter from another 10-year-old girl who lives 140 miles away. Her name? You guessed it, astute reader - she was also named\u00a0Laura Buxton.\r\n\r\nLet\u2019s get this straight, not only did the balloon launched by the first Laura Buxton make it 140 miles south in a headwind, but it ended up in a hedge in the other Laura Buxton\u2019s back yard.\r\n\r\nAccording to the Radiolab piece, both young women look remarkably alike. And, when invited to meet each other for a recording in a London radio studio, they both showed up separately in a pink jumper and jeans.\r\n\r\nYet, the coincidence doesn\u2019t stop there. It turns out that both girls had a three-year-old black Labrador, a gray rabbit and a guinea pig. Moreover, they brought their guinea pigs to the studio with them - unplanned, no less.\r\n\r\nSo, what do we make of this unusual synchronicity? Most of us would feel it more than a mere coincidence, perhaps fate or even a miracle.\u00a0\r\n\r\nWhen such extraordinary events happen to us, we may feel that there is a paranormal explanation. We feel special. We have been personally touched by the gods of destiny.\r\n\r\nConsciously and unconsciously, humans are pattern seekers.\r\n\r\nA decade or so ago, a California woman reported that a rust stain on her refrigerator door looked all the world like the Virgin Mary. Within days, people were lined up around the block to see and touch the oxidized image.\r\n\r\nSometimes called pareidolia, the fascination with the Blessed Mother on the fridge door results from a human\u2019s natural tendency to seek meaning in patterns that are random or enigmatic.\u00a0\r\n\r\nSomeday you may retrieve a piece of toast from your toaster and marvel at what you see in the very spot where you planned to place your pat of butter. When held just right, your breakfast toast bears the iconic likeness of Che Guevara.\r\n\r\nIf this should happen, don\u2019t think that you have been personally chosen by the gods of pareidolia to start a revolution. This is merely your pattern-seeking brain at work.\r\n\r\nWe do the same thing with numbers and events. When we experience a coincidence, we tend to block out everything but the factors that support our notion that something extraordinary has happened.\r\n\r\nPeople win the huge payoff lotteries every day, and some have won it twice. A California man won both the Fantasy Five and the Super Lotto on the same day.\r\n\r\nThe odds of that happening are a staggering one in 23.5 trillion. Yet, it happens occasionally \u2013 such mindboggling events are what mathematicians call a \u201cnon-zero\u201d probability.\r\n\r\nWhen we start talking about large numbers, like grains of sand on the Earth or a universe that has billions of solar systems in billions of galaxies, there is a chance that anything can happen. And, furthermore, it will happen.\r\n\r\nThis suggests that what we often believe is a \u201cmeaningful\u201d coincidence is far less remarkable than intuition would dictate.\r\n\r\nYou have probably heard the old adage that if you put 100 monkeys in a room with 100 typewriters, they will eventually write a Shakespearean sonnet. *\u00a0\r\n\r\nAlthough, to do so, you would have to round up a hundred immortal monkeys. Such a task may require an infinitely long period of time to bear fruit. And what are the odds of that? Finding the immortal monkeys, I mean.\u00a0\r\n\r\nThe point is that almost anything that you can conceive of happening can, and probably will, happen.\u00a0\r\n\r\nAs celebrity magician and noted skeptic, Penn Jillette, said of New York City\u2019s population of nearly eight million people, \u201cMillion to one odds happen eight times a day in New York City.\u201d\r\n\r\nNevertheless, even recognizing the long reach of mathematical probabilities, some coincidences just seem to have an element of the ineffable about them.\u00a0\r\n\r\nIt may seem that I am suggesting that all coincidences can be accounted for by the \u201cLaw of truly large numbers.\u201d **\u00a0\r\n\r\nIt is at this point I have to step over the fence that divides reductionist science from the intuitive and put one foot tentatively upon the ground of the unknown.\r\n\r\nI do this in total disregard for how I may be perceived. As an old friend and committed non-conformist is fond of saying, \u201cWhat others think of me is really none of my business.\u201d\r\n\r\nMy interest in coincidences goes back many decades. I regard nearly all my own coincidences as random events, even the one I wrote about in last week\u2019s column.\r\n\r\nWith one exception.\r\n\r\nI wrote a two-part story in The Pocahontas Times in June of 2020. In it, I recounted a series of bizarre events that started here in Pocahontas County and led me to a particular dog located in Missouri.\r\n\r\nAll along the path of this journey, the people who played roles in this months-long odyssey would say things to me like, \u201cThis is unbelievable.\u201d and \u201cI guess there\u2019s more to this world than I thought.\u201d\r\n\r\nI have gone over the details of this \u201ccoincidence\u201d in my mind hundreds of times, and I always come up with the same conclusion \u2013 it was meant to happen. It\u2019s one of those situations where \u201cyou had to be there.\u201d\r\n\r\nPerhaps I am an unwitting victim of something called apophenia. This is where meaning is found in unrelated or random events. In this case, the patterns were not ominous as those in schizophrenia, but rather, just the opposite \u2013 they brought forth great joy and wonder.\r\n\r\nWe humans harbor tendencies toward wishful thinking \u2013 we do develop confirmation biases, and we clutch them tightly. And as each new element unfolded in my coincidence, it kept adding to the strength of my overall conviction.\u00a0\r\n\r\nAnd now that it is firmly planted in my belief system, it would be hard to reverse. I will most likely go to my grave believing that this one remarkable coincidence pushed me along a road that I may never have otherwise traveled.\u00a0\r\n\r\nI am left with one nagging question: Did I fool myself?\r\n\r\nI hope that you too have a special coincidence in your life.\u00a0\r\n\r\nThe concept of a cold, meaningless universe predicated on chaos and randomness is not an attractive prospect. Humans seek and need meaning in all aspects of our lives, regardless of our belief systems.\r\n\r\nPerhaps coincidences open doors to the possibility of a more extraordinary and more purposeful life. And, just what is wrong with that?\r\n\r\nIn the final installment about coincidences, we will examine a coincidence that fairly staggers the mind.\u00a0\r\n\r\nAnd finally, we\u2019ll look at coincidences that readers have sent in.\u00a0\r\n\r\nAll, in next week\u2019s For Your Consideration.\u00a0\r\n\r\nUntil then,\r\nKen Springer\r\nKen1949bongo@gmail.com\r\n\r\n* There are several variations of the monkey and typewriter story. All are meant to demonstrate probabilities over long periods of time.\r\n\r\n** The Law of Truly Large Numbers says that \u201cgiven enough opportunities, we should expect a specified event to happen, no matter how unlikely it may be at each opportunity.\u201d Scientific American, February 1, 2014.