philosophy, science theory

The Incredible Power of Chance Events

Written by Lee Schneider, founder of DocuCinema.

The amazing things that have happened to me recently include kismet, random romance, encountering the famous and meeting my future wife in an unheated room of sweaty people. Is everything predetermined? Or is the universe running on Random?

Growing up in Larchmont, New York I was given a charge account at a book store. One summer I charged $1000 worth of literature, shocking my parents with the bill. I loved a book called Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine author.

Nearly four decades later I was in Buenos Aires with a modest notion. I wanted to see the café where Borges took a coffee now and again. Chance had different plans, because when we went by Borges’ house his widow was inside.borgesl1000900 She wanted to meet me. Incredibly, she not only gave me a tour of his house, but I saw the studio where he wrote the book I had come to love. On that day, I reconnected with the spark of writing.

Had the moment been engineered by unseen forces, or by the simple action of a woman moving to the window to see if it was raining? Forty years ago I plucked a paperback from a shelf and half a world away a woman decided to accept Borges’ offer to become his secretary and later, wife. Try figuring the odds of she and I meeting someday and your head might explode. But let’s try something else instead.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman believes that we all know 300 people by first name. One morning you’re walking among New York’s 8.2 million people. What are the chances of running into someone you know?

I posed this question to a professor of statistics at UC Berkeley. Before he could answer, he had more questions. “How many people does one run into walking in NY in a day? 100? 500? 1000? How many of the 300 people you know visit NY on a given day?”

Roping in random wasn’t going to be easy. Assume that all 300 of my friends were in New York at the same time and assume 26,402.9 persons per square mile, as per US Census data. But since I am walking, you have to calculate how many people I’d meet not per square foot, but while moving in a straight line as I walked. That would be a whopping 733.4139 people per linear mile. Since I know 300 of them, divided by the 8.2 million of New York’s population, it would follow that I’d encounter .0268 friends per mile. The chance of seeing at least one of them was about 12.7%.

Wow.

First, it’s amazing that we can put a number to something that you might think of as random, like running into a friend. Second, the number delivered by our spectacular calculation was meaningless. No way everyone in New York is going to be outside at the same time and distributed randomly so I could run into them in a controlled way. Fuggaboutit! As the statistics professor put it, “These assumptions are ridiculous, of course!”

Of course. But the tortured nature of the calculation shows how the effortless ballet of running into a friend can be awesomely complex.

Stay curious and see you next Thursday.

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9 thoughts on “The Incredible Power of Chance Events

  1. Great post.

    In these times of widespread applied science we vastly increase the chance of running into a friend. As we use technology such as Facebook and Twitter on our iPhones and Blackberries, we start to take random out of the equation. Does this also take away some of the magic?

    Recently, on my way to the airport for a flight to Israel, I (rather obsessively) was checking Facebook, where I noticed that an old friend who I had not actually seen in over a decade was on his way to Jerusalem as well. A few emails and cell phone calls later and we had plans to spend an afternoon touring the Old City of Jerusalem.

    Now we talk regularly and have several creative projects that we have put into motion. I think the magic is still there.

    PS. Lee – Love the blog so far. Look forward to lots more.

    • Thanks, Alan, for the great story. Glad you met up with your friend! There is something about airports and travel being a popular example of chaos …. WiFi and cell service can shorten the arc between chaos and order, and mathematicians are too. As James Gleick described so well in “Chaos: Making a New Science,” the number crunchers have looked chaos in the eye and found order. Even a rising column of smoke forms a pattern of swirls that can be predicted. In future post I want to get into how karma might factor in to randomness.

  2. Jeff Schneider says:

    I’ve had this thought of the randomness of the world when landing in LAX or other large city airports. When you’re driving in your car headed somewhere in particular you feel so purposeful. You’re on a schedule; you’ve got a plan. On the other hand, when watching the traffic from say 10,000 feet… watching so many cars, buses and trucks going in so many directions at once… it all appears so random. All of these people just scurrying about the planet. How important could that be, anyway?

    Everything depends on your perspective.

  3. Gloria Kruener says:

    Love the 500 words each week. I came across a resource that might be helpful in your spiritual endeavors. You probably already know about it, but at UCLA there is a Mindful Awareness Research Center (http://marc.ucla.edu) Their website is really good and it might be something right up your alley.

    Hope all is well and keep the 500 words coming!

  4. I’m the future wife who was in the room of sweaty people (yoga). I like to think there is some sense of magic or Universal force if you will — but the numbers game is definitely interesting too. I guess what I am most curious about is what inspires us to make a certain choice at a certain time. The underbelly of the numbers game.

  5. Sophie says:

    An aside to this…I am curious what the statistics would be on one’s meeting or hearing from someone that they had just been thinking about. This happens very often for me, even with people that I have not heard from or seen in years. I call this being in the flow. Is it just random…or do we have the power to draw people to us by being so present in the moment and not attached to an outcome that the person thought of can not help but respond? I believe that there is a “flow” or being so in the moment that there is no time or separation between us? I don’t usually reside there, but when I step in miraculous things happen.

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