How does a mathematician approach incredible coincidences? Is there a way to apply logic to flukes and twists of fate?
To find out, I spoke with Joseph Mazur, the author of Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence. He’s an author and mathematician who specializes in looking at the odds behind seemingly unlikely events. We looked at one famous story from his book — a 1932 New Yorker article that, over time, has turned into a kind of internet legend.
The story tells how Anne Parrish found one of her favorite childhood books, by accident, a few decades removed and an ocean away from her childhood home. It’s a story that seems impossible — but Joe Mazur showed me how he analyzes coincidences just like this one and, in the process, better understands how miraculous (or not) they really are.
A mathematician’s approach to coincidences isn’t all about odds and numbers — though it includes that, too. Instead, Mazur emphasized the categorization of types of problems, as well as the endless search for the variables that might affect the outcome.
That’s a good outlook for the next time you encounter an uncanny twist of fate. Take the time to be astonished, but consider taking the time to be curious, too.