One of the great mysteries of the universe is the birthday phenomenon. You know, the one that says that if you’re in a group of twenty-three people, there’s a 50% chance that two of you will have the same birthday.

OK, that’s interesting.

But what’s more interesting is how likely you are to discover that two of you have the same birthday.

Think about it.  Coincidences exist all the time. You could be sitting between two people on the tube who both have the same birthday as you, but you’re unlikely ever to discover it.  The person you’ve been talking to at a party might have four children with the same names as yours. But the trick is to get there.

So there are two tiers of coincidence. The ones that merely exist (covert coincidence) and the ones you manage to uncover (overt coincidence).

I know a woman whose twins are named Chester and Lois. Like my parents.

Fairly odd.

But really odd, was the guy I met at a party at Le Train Bleu in New York City thirty years ago, with whom I talked for about ten minutes, discovering not only that we were from the same tiny town two hundred miles away and that we’d gone to the same school, but that we were both in the same playground when we heard that JFK had been shot — by means of a child running through the playground shouting “Kennedy’s dead he got shot in the head!” It was 1963.  I was seven. How on earth did we get there?  And so fast?

I heard Hilary Mantel speak at the Oxford Literary Festival last year, and she described ideas circling the airspace above her head like planes waiting to be called in to land.

I’ll write a book about overt and covert coincidence someday soon. It’s been circling long enough.






15 thoughts on “Coincidence? Maybe.

  1. Sherryl 8 years ago

    I agree with Mantel – “she described ideas circling in the airspace above her head like planes waiting to be called in to land.”
    The problem is that so are everyone else’s ideas and sometimes those airspaces overlap!
    I bet there are a lot of writers out there who have been halfway through writing a novel (or short story) about a great idea they’ve had, only to see someone else publish the same thing ahead of them.
    It causes a real dilemma – to keep going or give up?
    And sometimes they have already submitted their novel, and start wondering if some editor “stole” their idea!
    But I think some ideas are just of their time, and so we get that coincidence happening.

  2. Meg 8 years ago

    I don’t believe that anyone ever has the same idea in a meaningful way. And even if two writers had the exact same idea (but how could they?), they’d deal with it in completely personal ways. If the subject matter is objectively similar (two biographies of the same person?), one is likely to do a better job. Or have a different angle.

  3. bookwitch 8 years ago

    No, no, I’m doing that. Though yours will possibly be better…

  4. Lesley Martin 8 years ago

    Were you listening to Simon Mayo on R2 yesterday? If not its a really wierd conincidence that both you and he should be talking about the birthday phenomenon on the same day…spooky.

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      See? Covert coincidence becomes overt coincidence. Weird indeed. (No, I didn’t hear it.)

  5. Lesley Martin 8 years ago

    excuse bad typing – weird coincidence

  6. Rod Chu 8 years ago

    Actually, the math mystery you describe is better stated as “… two of THEM will have the same birthday.” It’s one of those discoveries that turned me into a math geek. It’s not the degree of coincidence you suggest, but still pretty amazing.

    To your point, though, check out the concept of SYNCHRONICITY. I happened onto it in James Redfield’s “The Celestine Prophecy” and have been sensitive to it ever since.

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Two of them — more accurate. Synchronicity is indeed related, though recently I’ve become a fan of the apophenia — the experience of finding apparently meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. It’s a great metaphor — poor humans, always looking for confirmation and meaning where it doesn’t exist.

    2. Amanda 8 years ago

      Terry Pratchett says omens are everywhere – you just need to pick the ones that suit you. (to paraphrase)

  7. Kirsten Baron 8 years ago

    There is a touch of this subject in ‘Just in Case’ already, isn’t there? I’d be more than happy for you to revisit this theme, especially as I’m tired of all th eclever-clogs who throw statistics at me when I observe synchronicities. The trick is to enjoy meaningless coincidences without reading anything into them. Or, better still, reading into them whatever you will without taking yourself too seriously.

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Well said. I always say I note coincidence and weird experiences, but don’t draw conclusions.

  8. Emma beasley 8 years ago

    It’s really strange because I have only just found out that in my tutor group at school there is someone called Anna Beesley and she was born on the same day as me but just 2 mins after me! How strange is that?!?!?!

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      That is VERY weird. VERY.

    2. Emma beasley 8 years ago

      I know that’s what I thought !!!!

  9. kylie saunders 8 years ago

    My very best friend, who I have known for 25 years, met the love her life and married him very soon after me.

    When we were young, we both had long term relationships with guys that ended badly – and both their names were Geoff, middle name Alan.

    When we met our true love, we were in different countries, vowed love at first sight, pledged to be with them forever only after a few days, and married them within a year.

    They were both called Jamie. Even weirder for her, her beloved’s surname was the same as her mum’s maiden name, and his son had the same name as her brother.

    My brother and law and my hubby have both got policeman as fathers.

    Life is full of these wonderful connections – ain’t it grand?

Comments are closed.