How many striking coincidences can we expect in a single lifetime? Setting the bar high, let’s define ‘striking’ as a probability of less than one in a billion. I list here a few of my own. The first set of coincidences was an incredible run of luck while travelling as a student. I feel entitled to count these as coincidences because, in each case, whatever we set our minds to, happened a few minutes later. It was a case of coincidence combined with luck. I estimate the probability of each of the four events as we go along, and give a final probability estimate at the end.
1) No Money in Cologne
In August and September 1963 I went travelling with a school friend Graeme Locke. We travelled mainly by hitchhiking through the UK, Scandinavia and the two Germanies. The trip of 2000+ miles took us over land by road and rail, and over sea ferry routes. For the road parts, we couldn’t hitchhike the whole time but we did so whenever we could. In East Germany, we travelled by train from Berlin to Cologne, one of the few approved routes available.
On arriving at Cologne station, we had a slight problem – we needed to get back home to Portsmouth but we were completely out of money. I say ‘slight’ problem, because it was soon resolved. We started a ‘porter service’ for people in need of help with their luggage. We stationed ourselves at the taxi drop-off point and, within no more than 2-3 minutes, arrived an elderly lady in furs with a luxurious set of four suitcases.
Möchten Sie eine Hand mit Ihrem Gepäck?
Sure enough, the dear lady needed some help to take her considerable luggage set to platform 13. We took it over, about three minutes of work. Thanking us, the lady gave us a tip – a very large tip. From memory, is was 40 Deutsch marks – four of these:
In today’s money, it must have been worth at least €60, enough to buy our train+ ferry tickets to Dover, plus some change for a slice of pizza [p = 10 to the minus 4].
2) No Money on the Ferry
OK, so far so good, we were aboard the Calais-Dover ferry, but now we were skint once again. In those days, before health and safety regs took over everyday life, people would be crammed into every available space on board the ferry. On every deck from aft to stern and from port to starboard, passengers were sitting cheek by jowl.
We got chatting to a Turkish student squatted next to us on his way to Fresher’s week at Newcastle University. He had a lot of questions because this was his first visit to England.
The bell rang for the first sitting of lunch. C’mon he said, let’s go for lunch. We explained our predicament, and instantaneously he just said, no worries, lunch is on me. We enjoyed a fulsome lunch with our new found Turkish friend [ p = 10 to the minus 2].
3) No Money at Dover, No Problem
Here we were in Dover, as skint as badgers, and so we started hitching again. A vehicle driver stopped within a couple of minutes offering to take us to Brighton. The driver kindly dropped us at Brighton station and gave us a 10/- shilling note [worth £9 in today’s money] for our fares to Portsmouth [p = 10 to the minus 2].
4) Ten Bob in Brighton
No way were we about to waste our precious ten bob on train fares! Off we went to the A27 hitching the last remaining stage to Portsmouth. Our final driver, in the very first car that came along the road, lived at Havant, a few miles east of Portsmouth. The man kindly took us to his house, cooked us beans and poached eggs on toast, and then drove us to our respective homes in Portsmouth.
After our 2000-mile journey, we arrived home with a crisp 10 shillings profit! [p = 10 to the minus 2].
Probability of the Sequence
The four events are estimated to have the following probabilities:
1) Lady gives us 40 D-marks at Cologne station: p = 10 to the minus 4
2) Student buys our lunch on the ferry : p = 10 to the minus 2
3) Man gives us lift to Brighton and a 10 shilling note : p = 10 to the minus 2
4) Man cooks us a meal and takes us home: p = 10 to the minus 2
The combined probability of these four events is:
P = 10 to the minus 10 = one in a 10,000,000,000
or one in ten billion.