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.


| January 2017



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.”

Photo by Fotolia/allvision

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.

For more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

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