Unlikely Stories and Exceptional Moments

There are moments when we are struck by magnificent coincidences in the universe. But a mathematical look at such flukes might prove them to be less chance-driven than they first seem.

Man looking at huge board of formulas

“If there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small, it is bound to happen to someone at some time.”

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Everyone encounters coincidences in their lifetimes, some seemingly so impossible that you can only wonder at the odds of it coming together. However, in Fluke (Basic Books, 2016) by Joseph Mazur , you will find that the mathematical odds of serendipity are far more likely than you realized. By studying anecdotes, probability, the past, the present, and the connectivity of everything, Mazur finds proof of the inevitability of the sublime and inexplicable. If you’ve ever wondered how the decisions of seven billion people can add up to moments of coincidence, Mazur’s careful and clear explanations are for you.

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Remember that time when you were leisurely strolling along a street in a foreign city, Paris or Mumbai perhaps, and bumped into an old friend you had not seen in a long time? That old friend that you bumped into: what was he doing there in your place and time? Or remember that moment when you wished for something and it happened just as you wished? Or the fluke of hard luck you had when everything went wrong during your vacation because of unfortunate timing? Or that time when you were astonished to meet someone who shared your birthdate? They were times when you must have had a sudden feeling of synchronicity that shrank the universe, an illuminating transfor­mation that magnified your place in the cosmos. You felt part of an enlarged and centered circle of humanity with just a few persons — or perhaps just you — at that center.

Did you ever pick up a phone to call someone you hadn’t called in a year and, before dialing, hear the person on the line? It happened to me in 1969. Thinking about it, it seems more likely to happen than not. After all, a whole year had gone by — 365 days when it didn’t happen. Add to that the number of days the year before, another year when it didn’t happen. And add to that the number of days from then to now. It never happened again. Now we are talking about a serious amount of time when the coincidence did not happen.

Imagine this story. You are sitting in a café in Agios Niko­laos on the island of Crete, when you hear a familiar laugh at a table in a nearby café. You turn to look at the person, a man. You cannot believe that he is your own brother. But there he is, unmistakably your own brother. He turns toward you and he is as surprised as you. It happened to me in 1968. Neither one of us knew that the other was not back home in New York or Boston.

Or imagine this. You are browsing used books in a bookstore far from home when you come across a book you remember from your childhood. You open it and find your own inscription. It is a copy of Moby Dick with your own name on the inside cover and your own marginal markings throughout the book. It was a book you had in college. It happened to a friend who told me that he was browsing the shelves of a used bookstore in Dubuque, Iowa, a city he had never been to before.1

In 1976 my wife, my two children, and I had been tour­ing through Scotland, when on one snowy day our Vauxhall car broke down in the small town of Penicuik. A mechanic at the only garage in town told us that the problem was our alternator, and that it would be three days before he could replace it. We headed to the nearest pub, hoping to spend the night. The publi­can was a man of few words, but when we told him that we were from America, he livened up to proudly say, “Next week we will have someone from America coming to sing. You probably know her. I don’t know her name, but there is a poster downstairs.” He brought us to a large poster announcing a stovies night concert by Margaret MacArthur.

“Margaret MacArthur!” my wife and I exclaimed simultane­ously. “She is our neighbor. We know her very well!”

The publican nodded, and with blank countenance muttered, “Thought you would.”

America is truly a small country.

There are moments when we are struck by magnificent coinci­dences. They are the foci of nature’s web of associations because, especially in the solitude of this digital age, we want to fit into the intimidating world with a sense of self, an identity, a purpose, and a feeling that some parts of our lives have destinies. Daunted by the chilling vastness of the forever-expanding universe in an endless space and time, it is reassuring to know that we are more connected than we think, or that the universe lines up for us.

With any coincidence story is the question of whether there is something in the universe that perturbed time and place enough to trigger the coincidence and conceal its cause. Some people have questioned whether there are metaphysical connections. Some say that there is oneness in this universe, an energy that we cannot be aware of, a force that changes our patterns of behavior, a knowing something that we do not know.

Causality is the Western way of interpreting the meaning of events. Nineteenth-century Western causality had a strict classi­cal physics view that the laws of nature govern the movement and interaction of all observable objects. If the variables of the present state are precisely known, then the future is completely predictable. In other words, any predictions of the future are tied to whatever we can know of the past and present. However, by the early twentieth century, with the invention of quantum mechanics, Western philosophy took a radical shift of viewpoint: observable objects are driven by non-observable events of the quantum world, governed by simple, wondrous rules. One such rule claims there are no roads not taken. Every particle is ordered to follow not just one path, but also every possible path with a probability that depends on the path. Predictability, in that quan­tum mechanics point of view, is limited to probabilities that an object will be somewhere on each path and in a particular state. In other words, careful observation of exactly what happened in the past only gives us uncertain probabilities of what might happen in the future.

Of course, there is always the question of what causes one person to choose a path forward. We are not talking about the mechanical path of an object. Why did you, dear reader, choose to read this far into this book? You have free will that has almost nothing to do with classical physics, or the path of observable objects, or the new physics. The coincidences of this book are related to decisions that people make, roads taken and those not. Human decisions are a matter of free will, where neither relativity nor quantum mechanics come into play, although there are always other strong external influences. We decide on a path. Someone else decides on a path. Then, bam! The paths meet, and we have no apparent cause. The problem with apparentness is that it requires an observable object traveling on an observable path. So, unless there are brain-wave connections between dis­tinct individuals, free will trumps all quantum influences.

There is also the Eastern way, however. The Chinese, for in­stance, have their Tao, in which opposites cancel out to make the whole and total picture. In it the nothingness is also part of the whole. A block of stone can become a sculpture defined by the remaining stone and the stone that has been carved away. It is surely a different way of thinking. And still the Tao belief is certainly different than any theology that looks at the world as if everything in the world, from cells of organisms to subatomic particles of minerals, is prearranged from the time of creation, and laws governing causality can be broken only if ratified by God’s will. The Taoist believes that coincidences are in the sym­pathy of all things, and for that reason all events in the world stand in one relationship beyond any causality and any appear­ances. In other words, there are no flukes. But that same Taoist also believes that underneath there is a hidden rationality. The revered Tao Te Ching, now some 2,500 years old, tells us:

“Heaven’s net is wonderfully vast and enveloping;
Though wide-meshed, nothing slips through.”

Just as all parts of a whole work in harmony to complement one another, so, too, all events in the world stand in one meaning­ful relationship with the whole, which is in central “meaningful” control.

Walt Whitman also told us that we have some connection to the All, and that there is a moral purpose and intention that we are forced to follow unconsciously. He put it this way:

“As within the purposes of the Cosmos, and vivifying all meteorology, and all the congeries of the mineral, vegetable and animal worlds — all the physical growth and development of man, and all the history of the race in politics, religions, wars, &c., there is a moral purpose, a visible or invisible intention, certainly un­derlying all ... something that fully satisfies ... That something is the All, and the idea of All, with the ac­companying idea of eternity, and of itself, the soul, buoyant, indestructible, sailing space forever, visiting every region, as a ship the sea.”


Excerpted from Fluke: The Math & Myth of Coincidence by Joseph Mazur. Copyright 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.