Coincidence is a fine thing

I wrote earlier about my 666 coincidence at school. (To summarise, I correctly predicted my next throw of three dice as being 6-6-6.) It seems freakish, but it’s not that unlikely when you consider the odds (a generous 216 to 1). Furthermore, there’s Littlewood’s law to back it up: if a human being experiences an event every second, they experience about one million events in a thirty-five-day period. Therefore, each person can expect a ‘miraculous’ one-in-a-million event about once a month.

I’ve done particularly well recently for coincidences.

Last weekend, I met a long-lost friend from university in front of the Tube station. We were both as shocked as each other to meet after seven years. It turns out that he lives just round the corner from me!

Yesterday, I happened to read an article which prompted me to search for myself on Google. If you type my name and click ‘I’m feeling lucky’, you get this site. That’s a gratifying result, helped by the slightly unusual spelling of my surname. It occurred to me that anyone who wanted to contact me could do so fairly easily. That evening, I received a serendipitous email from a long-lost friend whom I had tried and failed to get in contact with. He has a very common first name and surname, and would be much harder to find. (On the other hand, he wouldn’t have to pay quite so close attention to his online persona as I do, since everything I have ever written is instantly available to a potential employer.)

Today, I predicted that the England-Portugal World Cup game would end in a penalty shoot-out, won by Portugal. It did. Perhaps that’s not a particularly surprising result. (England are good at defending but poor at attack, and never win on penalties.) However, as I watched it (yes, I actually watched a football game!), I realised that I ‘knew’ the result of each penalty kick beforehand. I started calling them out in advance, and got them right. I must be psychic, right? Well, maybe. It felt that way. But, actually, it wasn’t bad odds to start with. And besides, I said that it was going to be a Brazil-Germany final. That’s obviously not the case!

In a way, our misunderstanding of probability is part of what makes us human. It’s a source of literary and religious inspiration. Even when it doesn’t stand up to analysis, we secretly believe it nonetheless.