Compare and contrast: ‘Oh, it’s a small world!’ and ‘My, over 61 million people live in the UK alone’. Is a coincidence just a coincidence? Or rather, how likely is a coincidence, and what does it mean to you?

Experience indicates that it is a small world, or perhaps just that my world is too big for it.

What I mean is, wherever I lay my hat, I find a friend to lend me one to replace it once I lose it. I then don’t return it until I lose it, and the hat cycle is complete.

Kind of.

It’s weird how often you bump into people; but then, people we associate with likely live in a particular circle or routine. We have things in common, which increases the likelihood of bumping.

Then there’s the law of averages (or some gross misinterpretation of it). When was the last time you tried to count how many people you bump into in a day. Then compare that to the number of people who have been near you in that same day.

Selective reporting makes the world seems smaller, most likely because our brains need to believe that.

We evolved on the savannah, with a small tribe and a vast empty space to wander around. Our worlds are naturally small. (Add suitable disregard for evolutionary explanations of behaviour to taste).

You can’t take an eye to coincidences without considering the phase space in which they occur.

There are so many opportunities for coincidence in a day. And a few of them naturally strike gold. If I see a hundred people in an hour (easily possible on a day in town or at work) it’s not that unlikely that I’ll see one I recognise. It’s even not that unlikely that I’ll bump into the same person three times in a day.

That’s how space is organised.

Of course, this is a very cynical viewpoint. Particularly for one who takes great delight in the spectacle of synchronicity.

But it appears that I’m content to believe in a high probability of magic.

As for numbers…

Beyond a hundred (possibly even lower) they strike me as meaningless.

I can no better imagine 601 people than I can 61 million.

The point was demonstrated extremely well by Matthew Herbert. And it made me cry.

If one beep of a baby’s life support monitor represents 100 deaths in the Iraq war, how many beeps can you hear before it becomes incomprehensible.

Not as many as there are in that song. Which is essentially a gross (in every sense) statistic given life through noises and music. Wrapped up in a sweet melancholic jazz track.

It makes me cry.

And I still have no idea how many people live in the UK, and whether that number is big or small compared to the number of people I’ve seen in my lifetime.

And coincidences do remain just coincidences, but that’s more than enough.

Like I say, the fact that magical occurrences are probable in the long run does not reduce their magic.

It just makes it more statistically legible.

Which is neither here nor there.

—-

Illustration by Adam.

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About Alabaster Crippens

Joiner of Dots. Player of Games. Unreliable Narrator. Dancing Fool.
This entry was posted in Questions by Chris. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Compare and contrast: ‘Oh, it’s a small world!’ and ‘My, over 61 million people live in the UK alone’. Is a coincidence just a coincidence? Or rather, how likely is a coincidence, and what does it mean to you?

  1. Pingback: Is our society’s current obsession with “individualism”, and defining ourselves through ownership and habits, a form of defence against being swamped in our well connected, overpopulated world? | Unstruck

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