What A Coincidence?

I’m assured that there really are no true coincidences – just apparent ones, but when a surprising coincidence happens it can feel slightly strange. Carl Jung considered them as “Synchronicities” and seemed to legitimately hope for them to have some significance.  Others, such as Arthur Koestler (“The Roots of Coincidence”) abused their journalistic skills to paint too optimistic a case for their hidden meanings.  Meanwhile parapsychology, which tried to exploit them and had some serious recognition in the 1960s to 1980s, has now effectively dropped off the map thanks in part to the excellent exposé work by James Randi and Martin Gardner (who recently did declare himself a theist before dying).  Nevertheless we should keep an open mind at all times, no matter what our inner convictions.  Progress has only been made possible by those willing to consider new ideas.

A most common apparent coincidence is the unexpected meeting of two people, often in odd places.  In a Globular Cluster of stars living near the outer edges of the central bulge of galaxies, one could expect many ‘meetings’, just on a simple mathematical basis.  Globular clusters contain a few hundred thousand stars orbiting on random axes but the seemingly peculiar coincidence is that they hardly ever collide, even though they have been gravitationally attracted to, and have been orbiting, each other for as long, or even longer, than the ~10 billion year age of the host galaxy.

M80 Globular Cluster

M80 Globular Cluster

Credit:PIC “A Swarm of Ancient Stars – GPN-2000-000930” by NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI, AURA – Great Images in NASA Description.

For billions of years they pass by each other without the ‘coincidence’ of two of the stars hardly ever ‘meeting’ or colliding.  The reason is that though they are all gravitationally attracted to each other each the space between those stars is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times greater than the size of all those stars taken together. (Don’t be misled by the apparent large size of one illuminated pixel in the photo – the star itself is much smaller).

Back on earth, where people live a lot closer to each other, I’ve always been amused by the coincidence of the seemingly unusual ‘meetings’ which do occur.  Here are some true cases I collected over the years:

      1. On leaving the Toledo Museum of Art this week, we were followed by our neighbor, and museum director, Brian who we thanked for a very professionally run Area Artist’s Show, excellent food in the museum café, and of course our free charge up for the electric Nissan Leaf. Maybe there were only a few hundred people there that night but the chances of our going out the door together had to be greater than a few hundred to 1?
            2. Finally got to see the sinfully hilarious “Book of Mormon” this week, in a happy and full house of about 2400 people. In the seats right beside us were Stan Joehlin and his wife who we’d not seen since his small party for glass specialists given last summer.  Odds: Much greater than 1 in 2400?
            Click here to see one of the many great numbers in it:

3.  But similar people do similar things and go to similar places: so when travelling in the East many years ago, more often than not, I would run across a fellow traveler friend at one of the many embassy and consulate visits where we’d obtain needed visas for the travels. But when I ended up on Toronto Island I was surprised to meet, on the ferry boat, a fellow traveler I’d not seen or hear of since 10 years ago in the Tibetan café in Katmandu where we sheltered for months while waiting for the 1964 Indian-Pakistan war to end.

(This is not my friend but it was my favorite public bath in town back then)

4. While a guest at a Pittsburgh wedding in a great cathedral 12 years ago I was a little alarmed when the weather turned and thunder boomed only when the couple spoke their vows. I hope they are still happily married?

5. In Toledo 14 years ago we were warned of a test run of the local tornado sirens to be held at 10:00 am next day. At 9:58 am a most ferocious storm rolled in and no one knew how to interpret the sirens that blared two minutes later.

6. Twelve years ago in Perrysburg the old Maumee river bridge was scheduled to be demolished by explosives on a quiet Sunday morning. 15 minutes before the explosion I counted the largest flock (51 birds) of Turkey Vultures that I ever saw, before or since, circling (anticipating?) overhead.


7.  I have 2 night blooming Epiphyllum (aka wrongly as Cereus) plants, previously split from one plant many years ago.  The blossom only opens for one night and then expires.  One of the plants lives upstairs by an East facing window, the other is downstairs by a South facing window. As you can imagine, their micro-climates are quite different, yet 4 years ago they both only blossomed once in the whole year, but amazingly, or not, they both chose the exact same night to open up that year.

8.  About 30 years ago I was sheltering from heavy rain, standing under a palm tree near a beach about 100 miles north of Rio de Janeiro.  Talking to one of the other strangers there, it turned out that his cousin married my cousin! (Well perhaps not that very odd: there about 110 of us there for the Laser sailing championships, with only a few from each country.  And I was interested in talking to the only another one with an Irish accent).
Cabo Frio 1977
9.  After struggling with a related NYTimes X-Word puzzle clue, I asked Susan if “Confucius was confusing”? The next day the Financial Times had the following item headline: “Confucius Confusion. (Nobel) Peace prize winner stays away”.

10.  When sailing across the Atlantic, we had no wind one day and so motored. For man-overboard practice we threw over a life jacket and returned to look for it after a few minutes.  When we got to the spot a pod of dolphins were circling it and waiting for us it seemed.

11.  A coincidence that fortunately did not happen concerned a 2 day press announcement I attended for a new glass product that was to have been held in early September. For commercial reasons the date was brought forward by a few months and so missed what would have been a tragic (for me) coincidence.  The year was 2001 and the location was the New York World Trade Center.
WTC Pencil_3631

12.  This month we went to New York by train. Arriving at Penn Station on a dark wet night and waiting in a long line for a cab, I was surprised when the man immediately in front of us turned and recognized me.  Sean Lawton had worked with me in the glass business 10 years previously.  If I know 10 people in that city, and 10 million live there, does that make it more than 1 in a million odds of our meeting?
(I do know that you only need about 23 people in a room to have a 50/50 chance of 2 of them having their birthday on the same day and month date.)

13.  Before leaving New York we had tea and chocolate with Alen and Leslie in Saks 5th Avenue (hard to find a quiet spot in Manhattan), and then admired the holiday decorated windows for on our way out.  At 4:00 am next morning, on the train back to Toledo, we were very surprised to see ourselves in front of those same decorated windows again in the Style and Fashion section of the on-line NY Times.Xmas Windows Saks 5th AveMore photos of the magnificent windows are at:
Saks 5th Avenue Windows

It’s hard to believe that coincidences are caused by some unknown force, but there sure are some funny things happening out there!
Even though ‘true’ coincidences may mean absolutely nothing, I’d love to add to the collection.  Do you have any good ones to share?

Have a great Winter Solstice tonight (Dec 21) and Enjoy the Holidays.


14.  My brother Phillip reminded me of a good one I’d forgotten:  Fifty years ago I was at Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, in a remote part of Ethiopia, which really is in quite a remote corner of Africa.  I begged for a chance to try a reed canoe:

Lake Tana Reed Canoe

I had to carry it on my head, down to the water’s edge.  The paddle was simply a bamboo rod, with no blades.  Though the boat shape was good, it was not watertight and so behaved more like a raft with water seeping up between the reeds, while giving me a very wet seat at the same time.  The locals were delighted

and all happily came to help carry it back to its owner when I was finished.  The relevant coincidence is that I stayed a day or two in a remote little inn there while awaiting a ferry across the lake (it would only depart when full so everybody waited) to travel on down the Nile.  I signed the inn’s guest book, with little thought.  I was aware of Dervla Murphy, a Dublin nurse and traveller who’d ridden a bike to India two years earlier, and published her story “Full Tilt”, before going on to work in Nepal, but I’d never met her.  I did not know she was then just a few days behind me on her latest project: ‘Walking Across Ethiopia With a Mule’.  She stopped in the same very small inn at Lake Tana and was so surprised to see my name and Dublin address in the guest book that she quoted it in full in her next book. Many years later, with the book long out of print, my brother’s tennis partner in England, Gil, happened to read a copy of “Across Ethiopia by Mule” and asked him if he’d ever heard of Chris Barry from Churchtown, Dublin.  Imagine her surprise when he told her it was his brother!

15.  Scott just offered these 2 good ones:
… A guy that I only know as VK, with whom I work at Bosch was on a
plane from Bangalore to Coimbatore and I happened to see him
boarding. He was on a personal trip to visit some relatives in
the Coimbatore area.  Would be hard to be farther from home (Michigan) and
yet I still found an acquaintance on the plane.

16.  Jenni just happened to take a plane flight with Jim Fris. between
Dallas and Detroit, she to visit her relatives and he his. Maybe
an even bigger coincidence for it to be such a good friend!

Now is the time, but how much have I got?

I may have read too much Isaac Asimov, Stanislav Lem, Fred Hoyle and other great Sci-Fi writers, or done too much time-travelling with that new movie “Interstellar” (which really was too noisy for my ears) and of course with the inimitable Doctor Who:

IMG_3079 Dr Who

The old style Sci-Fi of Arthur Clark and others tried to be as accurate as possible with their science, but today’s Sci-Fi seems to be free to bend or break all the rules, and at any time!  So given that new freedom, here are some thoughts on now, with assistance from a few other sources.

Despite reading many delightful books detailing creation mythologies and cosmology origin ideas, I find no certainty on where I, or we, came from in the distant past, or worse yet, where did that distant past come from?  Likewise I am equally uncertain about where the future might be, or if I will ever get there because it constantly seems to recede from my grasp?

I started wondering if there is anything else but the here and now?

The December 2014 special issue of Scientific American, “A Matter of Time”, seems to say that I’m agreeing with conventional wisdom:

Past Present Future

The Past is gone forever. The Future never comes. We only live in an ever-present now.  But a moment later that now slips into the past as we slide forward into a new now and then another, and so ad infinitum.  We have fading memories, and the written histories, in paper, wood and stone, and in fossils, rocks and galaxies, and even in the CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) radiation left over from the Big Bang, of an ever-expanding past. (Image from Fall 2014, Scientific American):

All History

All this comprises a record of our past, but the actual living reality of that ‘past’ is long gone.  Any hard physical evidence only exists ‘now’.  It seems to me that now is our only reality.

Friend, and fellow tennis thinker, Skip found an interesting Hebrew mystic who is in total contradiction to the suggestion that there is only now.  The mystic says that as the Hebrew language, “…the Lord’s language…” has no present tense form of the verb to be: “…there is effectively no such thing as the present”.  That same mystic says: “…the present is the activity (they) are currently engaged in during every instant, with the purpose of turning the infinitely malleable future into a better past”. (It really is amazing how dogmatic those mystics can be about things that nobody else can ever know for certain)

Well, we can’t all be correct –

So if there is no present, what is ‘now’?  Is it not just the simple interface between past and future?  An expanding spherical surface that started way back at the moment of the Big Bang.

If we accept Einstein’s description of time as just another dimension, we can then think of this interface between past and future as a 2 dimensional expanding surface simply separating all the past from all the future.  The image below is from Neil Turok’s excellent book “The Universe Within”:

Turok surface

An old satire on the flatness of 1884 life, dominated by the Church of England, written by Edwin Abbot, described Mr. Square and others who lived in a 2D “Flatland”. They had interesting, if limited, lives. They could move around, and jump over each other, but like atomic particles, more than one could not occupy the same spot at the same time.  This implied, to me at least, that the Flatlanders had a very thin but finite thickness.  (I wanted to see that book rewritten with those 2D creatures having absolutely no thickness and able to pass through each other like shadows on a screen. But it would have made interactions between them very difficult and surely greatly altered the good plot line.)

It would be sad for us to contemplate that our lives are only two dimensional, and are lived out in the infinitely thin now interface between past and future.  Fortunately, and perhaps a little like the Flatlanders, we are rescued from this dilemma by the truly famous, and non-fictional, physicist Max Planck.  He is credited with the eponymous measure of an absolute minimum possible dimension: It is the length below which there is no meaning to our typical concepts of time and space, because quantum fluctuations would become dominant if you were to go shorter than this.
This Planck Dimension is only 1.62 x 10-35 meters long.
Henceforward I’ll only use scientific notation but just to show how difficult it would be without Scientific or Exponential notation:
1.62 x 10-35 meters is  0.000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,638 inches
That’s not very much, but it should not be dismissed as being meaningless.  For comparison, on a logarithmic scale, the size of a Hydrogen atom is about half way between the size of the universe and the size of the Planck dimension.

Spare a moment of sympathy for the ancient Greeks who were smart enough to conceive the idea of an extremely small elemental atom. But how would they ever have measured it with what we now call “Roman Numerals”?  The Roman system did have another symbol of M with a bar over it for 1 million, but multiplication and division was nasty, and I don’t know how they ever measured anything less than 1.  Fortunately we have our exponential numbers to make the following math extremely easy.

If the size of our 2 D spherical ‘now’ surface has been expanding at the speed of light (300,000 m/s) since time began
13.8 billion years ago, (or 13.8 x 109 x 364 x 24 x 60 x 60 = 434 x 1015 seconds),
then we are living on a spherical skin of size:
300,000 m/s (the speed of light) x 434 x 1015 seconds = 130 x 1021 meters radius (r).
If that surface is not simply 2 dimensional, but does actually have a small Planck dimension thickness, then we live in a volume of:
4 x π x r2 x 1.62 x 10-35 = 4 x π x (130 x 1021)2 x 1.62 x 10-35 = 3.4 x 1012 cubic meters.
This is equivalent to living a cube with one side of 15.1 km (about 9 miles) long.

You might think that a cube of 15.1 km on each side should be big enough, but what size do we actually need for all our stuff?

Friend Ben and other cosmologists say that information is a key component of the universe, and like energy, cannot be destroyed – it can only be transformed.  So we do need room for our ‘stuff’ which is all the information about everything i.e. the position of every atom, at every instant of time.  Fortunately Planck comes to our rescue with his concept of a Planck time unit, smaller than which there is no meaning for us, thanks again to quantum effects.  So we have the size of ‘an instant of time’.  The Planck time unit is the time it takes for light to cross the Planck dimension or:
1.62 x 10-35 / 3 x 105 = 5.4 x 10-41 seconds.
There therefore have been 434 x 1015/ 5.4 x 10-41 =  8 x 1057 Planck time units since the big bang.

The universe, according to Wikipedia, contains about 1080 atoms (we’re not counting Dark Matter because nobody has yet been able to directly find it, despite considerable effort).  So the amount of data, including all my ‘stuff’ in basement and attic, to be accommodated is:
8 x 1057 x 1080 = 8 x 10138 bits of data.
Now an  ideal data storage unit (yet to be put into production) would hold one bit of data in each smallest possible space i.e. one cubic Planck Dimension.  Thus our storage unit needs to be:
8 x 10138 x (1.62 x 10-35)3 = 34 x 1033 cubic meters,
or a cube with each side of 324 million km length!  Sadly that cube won’t fit in our 15.1 km long cubic ‘now’ space!  There might be an error in the calculations, or else we just have too much stuff.  I suspect the latter.  ….

But the universe is still expanding, and presumably the number of atoms in it is not changing much, so could the future provide the needed space?  After another year we’ll need more room to store all the new positions of those same old 1080 atoms. That is going take up another:
1080 x (1.62 x 10-35)3 x 364 x 24 x 60 x 60 / 5.4 x 10-41 = 247.6 x 1021 cubic meters,
or a cube of 6,279 km on each side.  By the end of next year the universe will be:
434 x 1015 + 364 x 24 x 60 x 60 = 434.000000031 x 1015 seconds old.
So the volume of our now space will have grown by:
(4 x π x ( (434.000000031 x 1015 x 3 x 105)2  –  (434 x 1015 3 x 105 )2) x 1.62 x 10-35  = 468 cubic meters, or a cube of only 8 m on a side – Not enough for that extra information we accumulated during the same time.  Conclusion: It might be time to buy stock in a good, forward thinking, storage unit business.

I think I’m starting to prefer Woody Allen’s quote:
“Time is simply Nature’s way of preventing everything from happening all at once”.

But who cares? Last week time stood still for me when my daughter Olivia, and John, produced my first granddaughter Kiera and now she is yawning, feeding, pooping and smiling with her eyes wide open.


Kiera and John  Kiera and Olivia

Now, isn’t that all one could ever ask for?

Kiera, welcome to our world.  May your enjoyment of now be fascinating, happy and forever.

Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink…

Coleridge’s mariner was damned for needlessly shooting an albatross. Toledo however, is bringing on its own destruction by inaction, despite warnings months ago from the Federal EPA. In the small hours of the night, ten days ago, an automated emergency phone call woke us to tell us not to drink the tap water. The annual algae bloom in Lake Erie this year had become too strong, right at the water intake pipe for Toledo’s (and Perrysburg’s) municipal water systems. This satellite view shows the western end of Lake Erie seriously compromised.  Toledo and the Maumee river are at the bottom left corner:
Lake Erie Blook_2144
For three days we were forbidden to drink the water, wash dishes (unless rinsed in afterwards in ‘clean’ water) or even to spray municipal water on leafy vegetables in the gardens.
The algae is an interesting bright green living slime. Its growth in the lake is accelerated by summer warmth and the excess nutrients (Nitrogen and Phosphorus) from fertilizer runoff from farms and riverside gardens. Heavy rainstorms can also overflow the waste water pipe system, dumping untreated sewage into rivers and lakes which add food to the algae.
The algae produces a harmful non-living, long lasting, stable toxin called microcystin. It cannot be destroyed by boiling and is too small to physically filter out, other than by Carbon filter absorption. It is odorless, colorless and tasteless, but is harmful because it accumulates in one’s liver, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) (it sounds incredible enough to be a story from the famous BBC TV sci-fi Doctor of the same name) in concentrations greater than 1 ppb (part per billion).
Microcystin is incredibly old. It evolved, with cyanobacterial algae blooms about 3 billion years ago, perhaps as a protective agent for the algae, but protecting against what we do not know – back then there were no animals in existence to eat the algae. The toxin might have been protecting it from solar UV according to today’s (2014/8/12) NYT Science section. The blooms themselves were vital to us then as they were the early creators of Earth’s Oxygen.
Our numerically challenged news reporters erroneously had it measured as “1 or 2 ppm” (parts per million) instead of ppb (parts per billion) for a while. But, understandably, it is hard to appreciate that a substance naturally produced in our lovely lake could be seriously harmful in concentrations above one drop per tanker rail-car full (300,000 gallons). But watch out for the numbers: while a limit of 1 (ppb) (parts per billion) could sound reasonable, would you accept the same level as safe if it was just as honestly, but more scarily, called 1000 ppt (parts per trillion)? No matter how you quantify it, it is truly wonderful that we can detect and measure such miniscule amounts. Such skills can save us, if only we can properly interpret the values and apply them appropriately.
Back in Perrysburg we had the interesting situation of water seemingly everywhere, yet unusable:
1. A live river full of slightly muddy water: the Golden Maumee.

River Kayak_3941
2. Clear, tasteless, odorless water in the taps, and a few recent gallons in spare storage in jugs in the basement, but who knew how far back the ban applied?
3. And my three 40 gallon full rain barrels (for plant watering) collected from clear and pure (well perhaps a little acid rain, moss spores, bird bits, etc.?) rain water from the roof.
Rain Barrel_2221
I was unable to interest any of the house residents (other than the quasi-dumb animals) in that toxin-free roof water, even when I offered to boil it.
Sold out signs appeared within hours, for a radius of at least 20 miles, in stores selling any type of bottled water. But friends visiting from out of state all brought gallons in plastic jugs and bottles.

The water is back on for now, and we have a stock of ‘plastic’ water to be drunk within the next 12 months as the bottles have “Use by…” dates of 2015.
Water bottles_2289
What happens, over time, to water in a plastic bottle?  I’m sure I could happily live on honey, beer and coffee made with skim milk, but dry cleaning one’s teeth is difficult.

Nobody said it would be easy but we do need to look after our planet. At least now we can measure the invisible toxins before they do too much harm. But sometimes even the very visible seems to be too hard to fix. For years Toledo and Perrysburg have been trying to prevent sewage overflows in heavy rains. Yet yesterday, 8/11, we had about 3 inches (75 mm) of rain which resulted once again in the following overflow damage to Water Street and hence, the river and the lake: