Exploring the fascinating idea of coincidences.
By Gayatri Nair (M.Sc. Theoretical Computer Science, 2012-2017)
I came across this on the internet one day. “Sometime in the seventeenth century, a boat sank somewhere off the coast of Wales. There was only one survivor. His name was Hugh Williams. Roughly two hundred years later, another boat sank on the same waters. All but one lost their lives. The lone survivor was called Hugh Williams. Another two hundred years later, yet another boat sank. There were two survivors, a man and his nephew- both their names were Hugh Williams.” Most things on the internet have to be taken with a pinch of salt and this story could very well be a hoax. But if this did happen, then it’s not just any coincidence- it’s one freaky holy-mother-of-all-coincidences coincidence!
Or is it?
The law of truly large numbers says that with a large enough sample, many odd coincidences are extremely likely to happen. So, with a staggering seven billion people living on the planet, the one-in-a-million chance actually means that there are at least seven thousand people with that chance. That figure pretty much gives us a logical and scientific explanation for most coincidences. And if you look hard enough, you can find a pattern anywhere. So the pretty amazing fact that the sun and the moon appear to be of the exact same size from the Earth, thereby making eclipses possible, isn’t that amazing after all, considering you had the entire expanse of the universe to begin with.
Then there’s a whole list of incredible coincidences between US presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy– starting from both being elected to Congress and then to President a hundred years apart to both their assassins and even their successors being born a hundred years apart.
But this too could be dismissed as a case of discovering a pattern after looking too hard to find one. Coming back to the Hugh Williams coincidence, a possible explanation could be that the waters off North Wales are pretty dangerous and Hugh Williams is quite a common name in those parts. But, sample this- Mark Twain was born on the day of the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1835. In 1909, he wrote in his autobiography,”I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.” And as right as rain, he died on the twenty first of April, 1910, the day following the next appearance of the comet. Now, that’s just downright creepy!
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