Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Plum Puddings and the curious nature of Coincidence

Shortly after my bank experience today, I met my friend Huw for a coffee in Great Marlborough Street, just off Regent Street. As we sat there, in walked Warwick Cairns, author of How to live dangerously, the book I was raving about just a couple of posts ago. How curiously coincidental is that? It was only later that I mused upon the event.

Coincidence is an extraordinary thing. Sometimes, events take such an unlikely turn that they seem almost paranormal. Take the story of Joseph Figlock of Detroit. He was out walking one evening when a baby fell from a high window into his arms. As if that wasn’t an odd enough event, a year later, the very same baby fell from the very same window … and was caught, yet again, by poor, unsuspecting Joseph Figlock who was probably starting to wonder why people kept lobbing babies at him.

My personal favourite coincidence story concerns Sue Hamilton, who was working alone in her office in July 1992 when the fax machine broke down. Unable to fix it, she decided to call her colleague, Jason Pegler, who had set off for home a little earlier. Finding what looked like it might be his home phone number pinned on a notice board, she called him and began to explain the problem. But Jason quickly stopped her: “I'm not at home”, he explained. “I just happened to be walking past this phone box when it rang, and I answered it.” The number Sue found on the notice board was not Jason's home number. It was his employee number - which just happened to be the same sequence of numbers as the number of the phone box Jason was walking past when she called.

What’s going on here? Is this some kind of cosmic joke at our expense? Is this sort of staggeringly unlikely event pre-ordained? Surely such things cannot simply be random? Well, surprisingly, they can. And events like these are more common than you’d ever imagine.

Coincidences happen all the time, billions of them every day. However, we only ever notice a tiny, tiny number of them. The philosopher Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe the experience of ‘temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events’.* Wikipedia, thankfully, explains things in plainer English:

‘It is the experience of having two (or more) things happen simultaneously in a manner that is meaningful to the person or persons experiencing them, where that meaning suggests an underlying pattern. It differs from coincidence in that synchronicity implies not just a happenstance, but an underlying pattern or dynamic that is being expressed through meaningful relationships or events.’

We can demonstrate the difference between coincidence and synchronicity with a true story about the French writer Émile Deschamps. In 1805, while eating at a restaurant, he was treated to some plum pudding by a stranger called Monsieur de Fontgibu. Ten years later, Deschamps found plum pudding on the menu of a different restaurant in Paris and decided to order it. Unfortunately for him, the waiter explained that the last portion had already been served … to M. de Fontgibu who just happened to be in the same restaurant at the same time. Then, some 27 years later, Deschamps was at another restaurant and again decided to order plum pudding. As he called for the waiter, he regaled his friends with the curious coincidence of twice meeting M. de Fontgibu. ‘If only he was here to make the setting complete!’ cried Deschamps … just as a frail and elderly Monsieur de Fontgibu walked in through the door.

Deschamps and de Fontgibu would have both looked upon these events as extraordinary coincidences. They would have seen what appeared to be an underlying pattern and maybe even ascibed this synchronicity to some higher force. But let’s now imagine that you had decided to eat at those same three restaurants on the same three days. The chances of you choosing to eat in the same restaurants on the same day and at the same time as these two particular Frenchmen are millions-to-one. And, of course, the odds of them choosing the same restaurant, date and time as you and each other are also just as unlikely. It's all a huge coincidence. But because you have no meaningful relationship with either man, the coincidence of you all being in the same restaurant at the same time is meaningless to you. In fact, you wouldn’t even know it had happened so, as far as you're concerned, there's no pattern. But for our two plum pudding chomping protagonists, exactly the same event would seem to be beyond the realms of possibility. For them it was synchronicity.

Brain ache yet?

Just wait … it gets worse. Because, you see, the chances of Deschamps and de Fontgibu meeting in the extraordinary way they did on three separate occasions is not so extraordinary after all.

Let’s imagine that two strangers meet at a party and discover that they have a mutual acquaintance. What are the chances of that? Surprisingly high, as it happens. There's a thing called Dunbar’s Number which states that we all know approximately 150 people well. Assuming that each of these ‘friends’ also has 150 friends, by mathematical progression we all have around 22,500 ‘friends of a friend’. If we now extend this by a further multiple, we find that we all now have 3,375,000 ‘friends of a friend of a friend’. Just one more step and the figure reaches a staggering 506,250,000 people. That’s almost 10 times the population of the UK (60,776,238 July 2007). And that’s from a chain of only four people. If you also include socio-economic factors that boost the numbers of people from particular backgrounds meeting at certain types of events, the chances rise even higher. Only a certain proportion of French citizens could have afforded to eat in the kinds of restaurant frequented by Fontgibu and Deschamps. So their meeting was more likely than it seems. And the chances of meeting someone at a party who knows someone you know isn’t all that unlikely is it?

Now let’s make one more quantum leap in our thinking.

There are now 6.5 billion human beings on Planet Earth. Can you begin to understand how many people that is? A billion is an enormous number. When the word 'billion' was originally coined, its value was set at a million squared, so that’s a million millions or 1012. However, since the late 17th century, its value has been altered so that, in most countries, a billion is now one thousand millions or 109. The old value of 1012 has now been designated as a 'trillion'. Now let’s give the number some perspective:

One billion minutes is roughly 1,900 years. About a billion minutes ago, the Roman Empire was at its height, Trajan’s Column and the Parthenon were being built in Rome and lions became extinct in Europe.

One billion seconds is roughly 31.7 years (1975), so approximately a billion seconds ago, Lord Lucan was found guilty in absentia of the murder of Sandra Rivett, the Vietnam war ended and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was heard for the very first time.

A billion inches is 15,783 miles, more than halfway around the world (the Earth is 24,901.55 miles around its waist).

That’s how big a billion is. And there are 6.5 billion people on this world, at this moment, all doing individual and unique things. You’re reading this. Others are walking their dogs. Still others are watching television. Some people are talking. Some are sleeping. Some are making love. And, all around them, billions upon billions upon billions of totally unrelated events are all happening simultaneously. So is it really so very strange that just two of those events – such as two individuals who know each other going to a coffee shop - happen simultaneously?

Finally, let’s talk probability.

Because I know 22,500 ‘friends of a friend’, the chances of me meeting one are actually somewhere around 1 in 100. That’s only three times more unlikely than throwing a double six. Which means that the chances of me bumping into Warwick today in the way I did today is actually quite likely. We both work in London and in the creative arts. We have creative friends. And we were drinking coffee in a restaurant in the heart of London's most creative district. Chances are we've both drunk in there before but the coincidence went unnoticed because we didn't know each other then. Suddenly, coincidences don’t seem quite so special do they?


I got him to sign my copy of his book too.

*Jung, Carl (1972). Synchronicity — An Acausal Connecting Principle. Routledge and Kegan Paul.


willow said...

Wow, you talked yourself in and right back out of that coincidence.

There are more things in heaven and earth, dear Stevyn,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thank you Horatio.

doctawho42 said...

That was ridiculously well written. I have weeks (like everyone does) when everything just seems to point to one thing. I had one week where the ghost of Jane Austen was hanging round me, and everything anyone said, anything I did, anything that just happened was actualy about Jane Austen. At the end of the week, when I went into town to meet my mum at a bookshop, she had bought me a very beautiful bound copy of the collected works of Jane Austen.

I went bloody ape shit.
Have you seen "I Heart Huckabees"? I always think of that movie when something like that happens.