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Lee Schneider

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The Incredible Power of Chance Events

Posted: 04/10/09 11:40 AM ET

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?

See what you make of this story: Growing up in Larchmont, New York I was given a charge account at a book store. One summer I charged $1,000 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. 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. 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.

 

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