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POINTFINGER.GIF (11071 bytes)Unlikely Events And Coincidence


Newspapers frequently run stories of the following kind: a man lost his University of Virginia class ring while sailing off the Carolina coast. He reached up to halt the swing of a boom, and accidentally sent his ring flying off into the sea, where it sank in about 30 feet of water. A year and a half later, another man was talking to a friend in an alley behind a restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a bright glint in some trash from the restaurant caught his eye. Investigating, he found a class ring, and from the inscription was able to locate the man who had originally lost the ring and return it to him. The two men assumed, after comparing stories, that the ring was swallowed by a fish which was later caught and sold to the restaurant, then discarded unseen in the waste from the preparation of the fish for a dinner. Of course, man other explanations are possible, but it is not important for the present discussion just HOW the lost ring made its way from the sea to an alley behind a restaurant. Whatever happened involved many remarkable coincidences … or did it?

Another news item reported how two women had met in a Tulsa, Oklahoma hospital two years ago when they had given birth to daughters about an hour apart. Even though they had solemnly vowed to keep in touch, they had not seen or spoken to one another since -- until they found themselves back in the same hospital, both having given birth to sons, this time about four hours apart.

One spmetimes reads about the bridge player who receives a 13-card hand consisting of all the spades. By chance, such a hand should be dealt only once in 635,013,559,600 times! Incredible, right?

All experience reported by many people is that of travelling to a distant city only to encounter a friend or acquaintance from back home, on the street or in a store or some other public place. The event seems even more remarkable when we consider how easily it could NOT have taken place. Had either of the two friends decided to go to Museum X instead of Museum Y, or taken an earlier bus, or overslept, or taken longer for lunch, or gotten on a different elevator, or any of hundreds of alternatives presented in the course of daily events that preceded the encounter, the event would never have happened and the two people would never have realized that they were both in the same remote city at the same time.

Perhaps most of the people who have, or read about, such experiences accept them as being very unlikely, very uncommon, but not otherwise unusual. Most people seem to feel no need to appewal to supernatural explanations for these events. But we frequently encounter in pseudoscience the claim that such events are in fact miraculous, and that some mysterious force or influence is required to bring about the event at all. Instead of accepting such events as normal events of low probability, there are in fact international organizations devoted to the collection, preservation, and dissemination of examples of such "strange" occurrences, which the organization find highly significant, mysterious, and certainly NOT due to "mere coincidence." Often the examples are rendered more dramatic than otherwise by involving some famous person or media personality, or being part of some famous event in history. Here are some instances from an article in the January 1982 issue of Science Digest.

  • British novelist Dame Rebecca West was writing a story in which a girl finds a hedgehog in her garden. Just as West finished this passage, she was interrupted by servants who informed her they had just found a hedgehog in her garden.
  • When Norman Mailer began his novel Barbary Shore, there was no plan to have a Russian spy as a character.

As he worked on it, he introduced a Russian spy in the U.S. as a minor character. As the work progressed, the spy became the dominant character in the novel. After the novel was completed, the U.S. Immigration Service arrested a man who lived just one floor above Mailer in the same apartment building. He was Colonel Rudolf Abel, alleged to be the top Russian spy working in the U.S. at that time.

  • While the Allied Forces were planning the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944, the following code words were used (and were among the best kept secrets of the war): Utah and Omaha for the beaches where the landing would take place; Mulberry, for the artificial harbor which would be put in place after the landing; Neptune, the overall plan for Naval operations; Overlord the entire planned invasion itself. On May 3, 1944, the first code word, Utah, appeared as an answer in the London Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle; on May 23, Omaha appeared similarly; on May 31 Mulberry appeared; and on June 2, four days before the invasion, Neptune and Overlord both appeared. British Intelligence investigated intensively and extensively, but the man who had created the puzzles was found to be innocent of espionage, had no knowledge of any invasion plans, and to all intents and purposes had chosen the words at random.

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