05/14/07 - chance occurrences

In today's excerpt - chance occurrences and probability:

"[In chance occurrences] we find the basis for superstition. ...  A 'chance occurrence' occurs. Not knowing the odds behind it, we marvel. Now, really, what are the odds? Surely too tiny for chance!

"Alan Guth, a physicist at MIT, described an example from his own family of how easily we turn the random into an omen. An uncle of his, who'd lived alone, had been found dead in his home, and a policeman had come to deliver the bad news to Guth's mother. While the officer was there, Guth's sister, who was traveling on business, happened to call. 'My mother and sister were both shocked at the timing of the call, that it coincided with the policeman's visit, and the news of my uncle's death', said Guth. 'They thought that there had to be something telepathic about it.' When Guth heard from his mother of this 'miraculous' instance of kin-based telecommunion, he couldn't help but do some quick calculations. As a rule, his sister phoned their mother about once a week. She tended to call either first thing in the morning or in the evening when she had a moment and when her mother was likeliest to be around. The policeman had arrived at his mother's house at about 5:00 p.m., and, because there were several solemn orders of business to discuss, his visit had lasted more than an hour, possibly two. All factors considered, Guth said to me, the odds of his sister calling while the policeman was on-site were [not especially low mathematically].

"The more one knows about probabilities, the less amazing ... coincidences become. ... John Littlewood, a renowned mathematician at the University of Cambridge, formalized the apparent intrusion of the supernatural into ordinary life as a kind of natural law, which he called 'Littlewood's Law of Miracles.' He defined a miracle as many people might: a one-in-a-million event to which we accord real significance when it occurs. By his law, such 'miracles' arise in anyone's life at an average of once a month. Here's how Littlewood explained it: You are out and about, and barraged by the world for some eight hours a day. You see and hear things happening at a rate of maybe one per second, amounting to 30,000 or so events a day, or a million a month. The vast majority of events you barely notice, but every so often, from the great stream of happenings you are treated to a marvel: the pianist at the bar starts playing a song you'd just been thinking of, or you pass the window of a pawnshop and see the heirloom ring that had been stolen from your apartment eighteen months ago. Yes, life is full of miracles, minor, major, middling C. It's called 'not being in a persistent vegetative state', and 'having a life span longer than a click beetles.' "


Natalie Angier


The Canon: The Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science


Houghton Mifflin Company


Copyright 2007 by Natalie Angier


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