Stranger Than Fiction

This blog has been triggered by two unrelated items that talk about coincidence, or are they unrelated? Maybe something spooky is going on that drew me to two articles on coincidence in one week?

The first of these occurred in a late-night repeat on BBC4 of a documentary called Tails You Win: The Science of Chance in which Professor David Spiegelhalter explains that although strange to our human mind, which is forever seeking logical explanations for things, coincidence is statistically more likely to occur than we might think, with some types of coincidence relatively common.

The second article I found in fiction editor Beth Hill’s blog where she is pretty scathing about writers resorting to coincidence, suggesting it’s a sure sign of poor plotting and can quickly lead to a reader’s suspension of disbelief.

(See links below)

Coincidences certainly do linger in the mind and demand explanation and this eery but true story happened on Christmas Day 1987 and it still disturbs me when I recall it!

In the summer of 1987, my family returned to a holiday cottage we had found the year before on the coastal path in West Wales. It is in a beautiful and remote setting and was large enough to comfortably sleep 10 of us. It fulfilled all our needs for the foreseeable future and we planned many more annual stays there. I took a photograph of the cottage in all it’s glory with the beach in the foreground and the Preselli Hills in the background and was so pleased with it that I ordered two framed, poster-sized, prints, one for myself and one for my in-laws. Now, because I own the negatives, I can be fairly confident that only two of these framed photos exist, one hanging on the wall in my home in Andover and the other over 150 miles away on my in-laws wall in Swansea, which makes them pretty exclusive.

At precisely the same moment, 3:00pm on Christmas Day 1987, both these identical photographs fell off the wall and crashed to the floor. Nobody was near them when they fell, there were no earthquakes in Britain that day and no other pictures fell in either household. Then, to add even more mystery, in the first post delivery after Christmas, my father-in-law opened a letter from the owner saying that the family were banned from the cottage because of the state in which we left it. I was one of the last to leave the cottage and can say hand-on-heart that the place was in immaculate condition when we left, we’d even hoovered the carpets! Could a poltergeist have visited after we left and trashed the place? Was that same troubled spirit responsible for our crashing photographs six months later? Can they work their mischief simultaneously while being hundreds of miles apart?

SPOOKI don’t know the answers and confess I am baffled to this day. It certainly made me wonder about the supernatural, even though I tend not to believe all that stuff. But what other explanation can there be? What are the odds of the only two existing copies of a photo falling off the wall in houses separated by well over a hundred miles on the same day, let alone at the same moment in time?

If you have an explanation, or you’ve had a similar freaky experience to share, I’d love to hear from you so please comment on this blog. Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, would also like you to share any strange coincidences on a website where he collects coincidences: there’s a link below.

Links
Here is Professor David Speigelhalter’s blog: http://understandinguncertainty.org
and his website for reporting coincidences: http://cambridgecoincidences.org

And here is Beth Hill’s blog: http://theeditorsblog.net/2012/01/20/coincidence-destroys-the-suspension-of-disbelief/

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Stranger Than Fiction

  1. Hi Bob;
    I did say something about this when we talked about it at the Cardiff Writers Circle but I didn’t really articulate it well. My basic point was that in a random universe coincidences should be expected — they just occur because of the laws of probability. I don’t know what the statistical probability of your two pictures falling off the wall at exactly the same moment would be (were they put up at roughly the same time? — that would narrow the odds), but after being put up they were always going to fall down at some point. Say the odds of that being the same moment are 10,000 to one, that means that there are 9,999 possible worlds in which they fall down at different moments, but one possible world in which they fall down at the same moment. It just happens to be the case that this one possible world is the one we live in. These are purely random coincidences that are mathematically going to happen. We all know the coin-tossing experiment and that the odds of getting four heads in a row is once in 16 tries, and that is in fact what happens — freaky in itself but that’s probability for you.
    all best
    Phil

    • Thanks Phil – they were both put up by me (but not at the same time) so maybe it’s all down to my crap DIY skills – that wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to Mrs D.

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