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.
Katmandu

(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.

DSCF0111

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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.
Dolphins

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.
Chris

LATER:

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
LakeTanaGirl

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!

6 thoughts on “What A Coincidence?

  1. Chris, I think you will agree this qualifies as an incredible coincidence. Two years ago we had a Bobcat S300 (skidsteer) stolen from our property in Pompano Beacg, Fl. It was insured and our insurance company paid us 28,000 for the skidsteer. We didn’t replace it because we had an extra one in Ohio which we sent to Florida. The employees didn’t like the one we sent down because it was a different brand with different controls and less ground clearance.

    After getting repeated request over the past 18 months to replace the stolen one with another Bobcat S300 I decided to look for one. I went to a website called machinery trader for the first time last week. I quickly discovered you can search by brand, model and geographic area. I found two in the Miami area that were very similar. Last week my manager along with Jerry went to look at them. They really liked one of them and made an offer in an attempt to purchase it. If the seller would have responded promptly we would have completed the sale last week.

    This morning we were showing our mechanic a picture of the Bobcat and he saw it had some metal added around the taillights and was convinced it was our stolen Bobcat. We went and looked a second time at the Bobcat only this time we had the Serial # of our stolen Bobcat and the police report from 2013. Sure enough it was our Bobcat.

    My employees left and called the police from a block away. When the police arrived we explained our situation. An hour later the Bobcat was being towed to an impound lot and the owner was in handcuffs. We are negotiating with our insurance company to purchase our newly painted Bobcat. The adjuster was shocked and told us this never happens.

    I am just glad we didn’t purchase it last week when our mechanic was on vacation. I doubt we would have been as successful getting our money back as we were getting the Bobcat towed. Pretty amazing since it was the first time I ever searched for this tool on this website and it was 18 months after our property was stolen.

    I am very happy we found it and pretty impressed all the pieces fell into place in an amazing set of circumstances.

    • The first sentence in the third paragraph should have the word “pictures” instead of “I tires”. Not sure how I did that. Must have been the auto correct.

  2. Olivia says: I remember walking down Broadway toward the Times Square subway station once and had a feeling that I might bump into Siobhan (my sister). As I got to the subway platform, there she was! Coincidence AND inter-sister ESP?

  3. Lovely stories. I remember walking down Broadway toward the Times Square subway station once and had a feeling that I might bump into Siobhan (my sister). As I got to the subway platform, there she was! Coincidence AND inter-sister ESP?

  4. Very interesting stories!

    As for coincidences, even if the events are really random, and we correctly guess what their frequencies are, we still tend to get the probability analysis wrong. The relevant question is not what the odds are of some particular combination of events occurring, but just any noticeable combination. There are thousands of interesting coincidences that might occur, which we would find noteworthy if they did, so the odds of some one of them occurring are not that small, even if the odds of a particular one are.

    Richard Feynman had a trick of pointing to any ordinary license plate number on a passing car, and saying “look at that, isn’t it amazing that this particular number showed up at this exact moment; what are the odds of that?” His point was that extremely unlikely events happen all the time, but mostly they are so mundane that we pay no attention.

    But some of your stories may not involve random events. In particular, I wonder if your flowers might have been communicating? I’ve read that it is pretty well established that plants can release volatile compounds into the air, which warn other plants of various kinds of danger, such as insect infestations. Do you suppose they could inform each other of their plans to blossom, or the presence of pollinators, or something like that?

    • The epiphyllum does have a huge scent, but only when the flower opens. The communication would need to be made weeks earlier when the bud first forms.

      Feynman’s comments are well taken. Remember: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 is as random a sequence of numbers as 4 6 1 7 3 8 2 9 5 though it looks much more ‘remarkable ‘.

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