Perhaps because so much in our lives seems determined by chance, by the roll of the cosmic dice, I’ve long been fascinated by strange chance occurrences.
At a party a few years ago, for instance, I found myself talking to a guy from the neighborhood. The next morning, my family and I flew from Dallas to Denver for a short vacation. We got off the plane, collected our bags, walked out to hail a taxi, and lo and behold, there at the taxi stand was the friend from the neighborhood, in town for a business trip.
I’ve always wished I had the mathematical/statistical brains to figure the odds of that happening, or at least enough to know how to frame the question.
What would you take into account to get a mathematical probability of such a coincidence? Would you take the number of people I consider friends and divide that into the number of people who fly from Dallas to Denver on a typical day? Or would you need to know something about the frequent-flying habits of my friends? Is the likelihood of seeing a friend 1,000 miles from home akin to the odds of being killed by lightning (2, 320,000 to 1), becoming a pro athlete (22,000 to 1), or what?
Just this morning, another freak of probability occured. I got up and remembered that I needed to turn off the sprinkler system so it wouldn’t run later today. I opened the closet for the control panel. On a shelf in that closet was a book by the Texas populist politician Jim Hightower, who served as Agriculture Commissioner a decade or more ago.
Seeing the book made me recall running into Hightower at the 1992 Democratic Convention in New York City. He had been out of office a couple of years and seemed fairly detached from the frenzied coronation for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. He was wearing his trademark cowboy hat (yes, all Texans wear them), but he seemed like a guy who sensed that his hour in the sun had passed.
I hadn’t heard much from Hightower in the past few years. As I walked into the kitchen I wondered what he was up to, whether he might have a new book coming out, etc. I turned on the radio. . . and there was a voice that sounded familiar, carrying on about greedy elites and monied kleptocrats and. . . yes, it was Hightower, being interviewed on some NPR program.
Now what are the odds of that happening? I’ve probably got a thousand or so books around the house. What are the chances that I’d look at one book and immediately hear its author on the radio? What would I need to know to figure these odds?