The science of coincidence
(or the Law of Truly Large Numbers)

“With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.”
It was a cosmic convergence of the random…statistically absurd and empirically illogical I’ll grant you, but still possible and therefore subject to the rigours of science

Your honour…ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am in this courtroom today, an innocent man who is obliged to defend myself, because not one single lawyer in this entire town had the courage to take on my case. Indeed, even the duty solicitor laughed in my face just moments ago. 

I must conclude, therefore, that they may well be men of the law but they certainly are not men of science. I trust that you, twelve good men and true, will prove different. 

Because it is Science that will be my chief witness today. Logic shall be my defence. Fact shall be my evidence.

Together, they will show that I, Terry Yonkers, did not and would not commit any, or all, of the crimes that have been alleged against me today; be it public exposure, incitement to racial hatred, cruelty to animals or indeed, attempted murder. It was, I’m afraid, simply a case of coincidence. 

I see a look of cynicism on a few faces already. You have heard the case for the prosecution and you may be thinking – “Ha! Fat chance! As if we’d swallow that. Sheer randomness. The luck of the draw. You expect us to believe that…?”

No, I do not. 

Because It was not chance, or coincidence, or luck, or happenstance, or probability, or a fluke, or a twist of fate or fortune for that matter – at least not in the way that you understand it. 

It was science. 

The Science of Coincidence.

Ladies and gentlemen, I will show you that I am simply a man against the odds, rather than a danger to the general public. I will demonstrate that I am a man who has wrestled with the improbabilities of the universe and not one who has wrestled with a small Labrador poodle cross. Once you appreciate that, you will pity me, not condemn me. 

Please bear that in mind, I pray, as I tell you about the time I was hanging off the edge of a cliff in a small seaside town in Suffolk, holding on to a frayed rope emanating from the boot of a car that still officially belongs to my late Uncle Howard, that rope being secured only by a prosthetic leg (which isn’t mine) jammed inside a spare tyre in the boot, and as I was hanging there, my trousers were somehow around my ankles rather than around my waist and there was a small, purple faced man accusing me of anti-Semitism just at the same time as my agoraphobic Auntie Jean walked past with her pet labra-doodle that then decided to bite me, causing me to fling the hound into the air and temporarily wind a schizophrenic called Adam.

How can this extraordinary situation be explained, I see you ask with furrowed brows and questioning eyes? I will tell you: coincidence. 

But no ordinary coincidence. 

Ordinary coincidence is when you meet someone with the same birthday as you. Or when someone wears the same cardigan as you to a Christmas works function. 

That is coincidence – ordinary, simple chance. 

But my predicament was so much more than that.

It was a cosmic convergence of the random…statistically absurd and empirically illogical I’ll grant you, but still possible and therefore subject to the rigours of science. 

Doesn’t a single sperm battle similar odds?

In a strange sort of way, it makes me special. Consider me, if you will, a sperm, swimming upstream. Special. Just try adding up the sheer improbability of the following and see what you think of me then…

The trousers are the easiest bit to explain. 

A small factory in Bangladesh produces 500 leather belts a day. A small troupe of underpaid and underfed Bangladeshi children work hard to produce good quality merchandise at an affordable price for the benefit of thrifty Westerners. Ramesh, a boy of twelve who should really have been in school but for the inherent inequality between nations, is usually quite diligent in his work, occasionally getting a pineapple from his boss at the end of the working week as an extra reward, but on the day he made what would ultimately become my belt he was struggling with the early onset of swine fever. The last belt he made before he fainted and ultimately died was mine and, unfortunately, his final bequest to the world was an inadequately secured belt buckle. 

Very hard to quantify the probability here, particularly when factoring in man’s inhumanity to man on the global scale and the indiscriminate effect of swine fever but, your Honour, I’m going for 10,000-1. 

Science, you see. 

Science was also involved in getting that belt from Bangladesh into Primark, where my Auntie Jean decided to buy me a nice brown belt to thank me for finding Howard the dog in her coal shed. Howard the dog, named in honour of her late husband (Howard) had run away. Of all the people looking for that wretched little dog that Wednesday afternoon, five including myself, I was the one who was allocated the back garden and associated outhouses as my area of search. 

Just add those probabilities together and we’re talking astronomical science already: the invention of the belt. Ramesh and his fever, poor Quality Control procedures in that Bangladeshi belt factory, Primark’s property acquisition strategy, my Auntie Jean’s thankfulness for the return of her deceased husband’s substitute flowing through into an economically priced gift. 

I could go on but I think you’ll see that we are well beyond the scope of “coincidence” already. 

I reckon we’re about 650,000-1. 

Think about my Uncle Howard contracting cancer and having to go into a hospice and the hospice nurse being from Southwold in Suffolk and my Auntie Jean deciding to holiday there one Spring after having been given a bottle of Adnams Spindrift (made in Southwold) by an attentive widower from down her street. My Auntie Jean…conquering her agoraphobia…drinking beer…I mean, come on.

Two million to one – at least. 

The purple faced man and the anti-Semitic allegation is a little trickier to explain. 

I turn to one of the complainants, Adam Pinker; a man I would have once counted as a friend. As you know, he’s Jewish and he’s only got one leg. Well, he’s got two really but only one of them he was born with. We’ve always had a bit of a love / hate relationship with both emotions mainly coming from him. One day he hates me, the next day he loves me. I think he may be schizophrenic but if you mention that to him he will either laugh whimsically or hit you in the face with whatever is nearest to hand. 

On the morning in question, I woke up to find Adam’s prosthetic leg on my doorstep. On it, he had written, in bold capital letters:

“There was a young man from Southwold, who was really feeling quite bold, he packed his trunks…dot, dot, dot.”

I have no idea what the rest said – it must have been on his other leg. But I did manage to deduce that Adam was planning to kill himself again. So, I jumped in my car and followed him. 

I found him on the edge of the cliff, staring into the sea. 

“Why did you pick Southwold?” I said to him. 

“It rhymes with cold.”

Regional linguistic development…three million to one. 

I tried the usual: You’ve got plenty to live for. We’ll all miss you, etc. He didn’t believe me as he knew as well as I that it wasn’t really true. So I tried a little reverse psychology. 

“Yes, go on then, jump, you stupid idiot. We won’t miss all the wailing you do at that wall. Go on, jump. No-one builds anything in cubits anyway…”

I don’t deny I said it but I assure you that it wasn’t intended to be offensive to the Jewish nation in exile…

I see a look of doubt on our chairman. Perchance you think I am re-writing history….?

A similar tactic had worked when Adam was contemplating throwing himself in front of the number 58 bus – a suicide attempt that was inept in its conception but would have caused him some measure of injury. That time I’d suggested that Abraham was truly the father of Islam rather than Judaism and he’d leapt down from the top of the bus shelter and punched me in the ear. 

My reverse psychology had also worked with little Howard the dog as any attempt to lure him out of the coal shed had resulted in gritted teeth and growling. My eventual positive avowal to lock him in for evermore had prompted the little scamp to leap out of the coal shed and calm the palpitations in Auntie Jean’s heart – caused by the thought of losing two Howards in successive years. 

But unfortunately, two things worked against me during this tirade of calculated, friendly, potentially life-saving abuse directed towards Adam Pinker. One, the purple faced man (who wasn’t purple faced at the time of hearing what I said about my Jewish friend) didn’t understand the context in which I was saying these terrible things and two, Adam, on what must have been his eighth or ninth suicide attempt, actually went and did it. He jumped. Or rather, hopped – right off the edge. 

I raced to the edge of the cliff and peered down to see Adam lying prostrate on a small ledge just below the cliff top, moaning and groaning about a pain in his pancreas. He was clearly un-dead so I thought I’d better get him, using a rope I had in my boot – unfortunately frayed from a previous convoluted suicide attempt involving a large boulder and a complicated pulley system. 

The purple-faced man was wandering about in a daze, shocked and appalled at what had just happened. My ridicule of the Jewish tabernacle had seemingly caused a Jewish man to leap to his death. The purple faced man was understandably in shock. But something within him snapped when I secured the rescue rope to a prosthetic leg and jammed it in the spare wheel of my car. He became purple-faced very quickly and advanced upon me, saying “you, you, you” over and over again.

I tried to explain but his anger invaded my personal space and I accidentally took a step back into nothingness (and let’s not even consider the odds of the right degree of coastal erosion happening at that time in that place). Fortunately, the rope was in my hand. Unfortunately, the purple-faced man got down on his hands and knees and started shouting “Jew hater, Jew hater” directly into my face. 

At about that moment, the spirit of Ramesh came and loosened the last of the ties binding my leather belt to its buckle and the buckle flew down into the sea. My trousers gradually worked their way down my legs, leaving my bare bottom exposed to the Suffolk air. 

The probability that I may or may not be wearing undergarments on any given day are generally two to one. 

“You’re worse than Hitler,” the purple-faced man screamed at me as my Auntie Jean (who had always disapproved of me) walked past with Howard. Howard, a dog with a very good memory, chose that moment to bite me on the finger, causing me to yelp and hurl the poor hound (who was still attached to my finger) into the North Sea and also causing me to fall directly onto Adam and to further damage his pancreas.

So that’s how it happened. That’s how Science conspired against me. All completely logical and achievable, although I do not dispute the fact that it is rather improbable. 

But the alternative is to suggest that I encouraged my good friend to commit suicide in a carefully calculated and racially motivated tirade of abuse and then decided to throw a dog into the sea for good measure whilst at the same time exposing my private parts to the general public of Suffolk. 

And that’s where the science comes in. 

Being generous, I think I’m on at least twelve million to one. 

I’m one in twelve million.

Perhaps you think this is a tad far-fetched. But people win the lottery all the time. Indeed, life was formed from a big bang at much bigger odds than this…and yet you happily accept that level of probability. 

Surely twelve million to one is not too much to swallow when you’re confronted with a man of previous good record who now stands before you accused of various heinous crimes. 

Coincidence? Not in the form that you know it. It was science. 

The Science of Coincidence.

I rest my case.  


About the author

Gavin Milnthorpe is not a scientist, as you might be able to tell, but he does feel he knows as much about dark matter as anyone else pretends to. He is also an author, whose books can be found in all the usual places.