Extreme coincidences don’t mean anything

I have been reading the book Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction by David C. Catling where he discusses the possible conditions under which life might be able to originate and replicate, and the likelihood of those conditions existing on other planets in the universe. It turns out that life can exist under conditions that to us humans seem extremely hostile. Organisms have been found on Earth under conditions of extreme heat (thermophiles) or cold (psychrophiles) or high acidity (acidophiles) or basicity (alkaliphiles) and other parameters and such organisms are collectively referred to as extremophiles.

This was my first exposure to the word ‘extremophile’ but the funny thing is that the very next day after learning this word, I was filling the gas tank of my car at a pump that has a little TV screen that shows ads interspersed with bits of trivia. And one of those bits was something called the ‘Word of the Day’ and the word that they displayed was extremophile.

This was quite an extraordinary coincidence, since the word is so esoteric. But the point is that such ‘surprising’ coincidences happen all the time. The number of events that can happen on any given day and that can be considered to be coincidences is astronomically large, impossible to compute, and the odds of experiencing one on any given day are not small, which is why we all have had them fairly regularly. What would be really surprising is if we did not experience such coincidences.

The problem is that for some people, the ubiquity of most coincidences is not generally noticed because they are so mundane that they may not even register in our consciousness and only certain types of coincidences register. For example, if the word of the day had been one that I was familiar with, then I would not have noticed if I had read it the previous day, even though the occurrence may have had a similar probability. People also tend to not notice the coincidences that don’t happen, for example, the non-appearance of another new word that I learned recently, such as sealioning.

Hence only certain coincidences are vested with greater meaning. If people can weave a plausible scenario around the coincidence, that coincidence acquires greater meaning. If someone happens to think of an old friend and that person suddenly calls (or worse, dies), they might think that it might be more than a coincidence and some form of telepathy was at play. This is especially the case with coincidences that have religious overtones where people are prone to think that some kind of message is being sent to them. In the case of the word extremophile, it is hard to concoct a story about what kind of message the universe might be sending me with that coincidence so it is easy to see it as just that, just another coincidence.

The difference between extreme coincidences and ordinary coincidences may not lie in major differences in their probabilities but merely in the their distinctiveness.


  1. says

    Richard Feynman once started a talk by saying, “As I was walking in here I noticed a blue Ford with a license plate XXX-XXXX! What’s the probability of that!!?!?”

  2. machintelligence says

    I spoke to a friend last night and he informed me that he had been thinking about another friend a few days earlier and then got word that the fellow had died. I told him to stop thinking of me.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    I once did a rough calculation of the probability that someone would dream that a particular person would die in a particular way within a day, with that scenario actually playing out. I used what I thought were fairly conservative assumptions. The result was that in a country the population of the US, it would happen a few times a year. Sadly, most of the dreamers would consider it proof of ESP or some such.

    Similarly, there will probably be several kids every year who are diagnosed with autism shortly after a vaccination…

  4. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    Much of what I learned of Science in my youth came from reading the ever excellent articles by Isaac Asimov in the monthly Fantasy & Science Fiction (I still have my originals along with paperback copies of the collected essays).

    You reminded me this morning of what Asimov had to say on the question of coincidence. He wrote:

    When Galileo, back in the 1610s, was looking at the sky with his primitive telescope, he turned if on Saturn and found that there was something odd about it. He seemed to see two small bodies, one on either side of Saturn, but couldn’t make out what they were. Whenever he returned to Saturn, it was harder to see them until, finally, he saw only the single sphere of Saturn and nothing else.

    “What!” growled Galileo, “does Saturn still swallow his children?” and he never looked at the planet again. It was another forty years before the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, catching the rings as they were further and further (and with a telescope better than Galileo’s), worked out what they were.

    Could the Greeks, then, in working out their myth of Kronos swallowing his children, have referred to the planet Saturn, its rings, the tilt of its equatorial plane, and its orbital relationship to Earth?

    No, I always say to people asking me this question, unless we can’t think up some explanation that is simpler and more straightforward. In this case we can–coincidence.

    People are entirely too disbelieving of coincidence. They are far too ready to dismiss it and to build arcane structures of extremely rickety substance in order to avoid it. I, on the other hand, see coincidence everywhere as an inevitable consequence of the laws of probability, according to which having no unusual coincidence is far more unusual than any coincidence could possibly be.

    Of course I was thinking about Isaac just the other day, what were the odds of that?


  5. Mano Singham says

    Jeff @#4,

    Thanks for passage from Asimov. It is nice to have one’s views parallel those of such an illustrious writer!

  6. Mano Singham says

    Li @#5,

    Thanks for the link giving the name to this illusion. I was curious as to how this phenomenon got named after the notorious German gang and found this link that explained the connection.

  7. tecolata says

    Last fall my dear cat Zoey went into congestive heart failure, her lungs filled with fluid, I put her in the veterinary ICU but although they gave her Lasix they could not drain her lungs and she died the next day. The clinic called me at 3:40 AM.

    In December my dear father went into congestive heart failure, his lungs filled with fluid, My stepsister took him to ICU but although they gave him Lasix they could not drain his lungs and he died the next day. My stepsister called me at 3:40 AM.

    True stories. Coincidence, to be sure. But similarity ends in that Zoey was only 3 with an inborn heart valve condition while my father lived to a ripe old age 95.

    If I were a mystic I’d see some connection between their stories. There is just coincidence.

  8. Mano Singham says


    I am sorry about your double loss.

    It would have been very easy to weave a story connecting the two events that gave them cosmic significance.

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