Am I In Touch with My Inner Uri Gellar?

12 Jan 2007


"This isn't just starting the universe out with some precise mathematical laws that determine physics and chemistry. This is a message. Whoever makes the universe hides messages in transcendental numbers so they'll be read fifteen billion years later when intelligent life finally evolves." ~a snippet from the fictional but thought-provoking book Contact by Carl Sagan.

I've probably demonstrated a kind of consistent, perverse rationality here in my blog (rational thinking, that is, about my own and others' irrational behavior). Can't help it, I suppose; it's at the core of my Myers-Briggs personality type (or, at least it was the last time I checked, many years back). But, every so often, one of those weird coincidences comes around that, at a minimum, prompts further reflection.

Yesterday, the day of my 38th birthday, we stopped by the East-End Food Co-Op for lunch and some supplies. We do most of our regular shopping at this store -- a bit of a hike from our home, but the only decent source in town for organic produce. Our normal "big shopping day" cart full comes to $150 or so, and 99% of our stops to this store are "big shopping day" stops. (In other words, quick stops there such as yesterday's are rare.)

Now, for any trip to any store, it's always odd to have your final amount come to a perfectly even number (e.g., $15.00, $89.00, $140.00, etc.), right? Statistically speaking, something like that should happen probably just once per 100 transactions. (Although, the actual frequency of this phenomenon would probably relate mathematically to the way most retail prices normally end in 9, also factoring in the local sales tax rate, if any. Even still, I think we can all agree that it's relatively uncommon.)

So, we bought just a couple of small bags of stuff. The tally: $38.00.

Does it mean anything, though? I guess that's a matter of opinion.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy says that if you hold a lungful of air you can survive in the total vacuum of space for about thirty seconds. However, it does go on to say that what with space being the mind-boggling size it is the chances of getting picked up by another ship within those thirty seconds are two to the power of two hundred seventy-six thousand, seven hundred and nine to one against.
By a totally staggering coincidence, that is also the telephone number of an Islington flat where Arthur once went to a very good party and met a very nice girl whom he totally failed to get off with ...
~Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

* * *

On a related note, I've just searched through my blog and was surprised to find no mention of the Eight of Clubs, a kind of off personal totem for me ever since a strange coincidence many years ago. I wanted to work this story in, above, but it didn't fit perfectly. Still, I think it belongs here, so I'll include it. You see, I'd been out walking the streets of D.C. with some friends one day and happened to notice, 15 feet or so in front of us, a playing card lying face-down on the pavement. So, I ran ahead and jumped on top of it. I loudly proclaimed something like, "I hereby predict that this card is the Eight of Clubs." Everyone thought I was an idiot, of course. But then I reached down and picked it up: Eight of Clubs. (I still have that card. Seems like it means something, so I wouldn't want to toss it. Still, what it means I have no idea.) One could interpret this story as more than an odd coincidence that, 51 other times out of 52 occurrences would've turned off significantly less memorable/meaningful. For one, how many shots do you get in life to pull such a stunt? How many face-down playing cards do most people pass by in their lives, while accompanied by friends? How many of these cards do we even notice? How many times do we decide, on a whim, to make a big spectacle out of "predicting" the value on that card?

As I said, I'm primarily a rational person by nature. But, there's enough weirdness to the world to make you wonder sometimes.

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