|Every one of us has, at some time, experienced a coincidence.
Mathematicians explain them away as mere
events - but there are those who seek deeper reasons. PERROTT PHILLIPS
ON THE EVENING OF 28 JULY 1900, King Umberto I of Italy dined with his aide in a restaurant in Monza, where he was due to attend an athletics meeting the next day. With astonishment, he noticed that the proprietor looked exactly like him and, speaking to him, he discovered that there were other similarities.
The restaurateur was also called Umberto; like the King, he had been born in Turin and on the same day; and he had married a girl called Margherita on the day the King married his Queen Margherita. And he had opened his restaurant on the day that Umberto I was crowned King of Italy.
The King was intrigued, and invited his double to attend the athletics meeting
with him. But next day at the stadium the King's aide informed him that the
restaurateur had died that morning in a mysterious shooting accident. And
even as the King expressed his regret, he himself was shot dead by an anarchist
in the crowd.
Another strange coincidence connected with a death occurred much more recently. On Sunday 6 August 1978 the little alarm clock that Pope Paul VI had bought in 1923 -and that for 55 years had woken him at six every morning - rang suddenly and shrilly. But it was not six o'clock: the time was 9.40 p.m. and, for no explicable reason, the clock started ringing as the Pope lay dying. Later, Father Romeo Panciroli, a Vatican spokesman, commented, 'It was most strange. The Pope was very fond of the clock. He bought it in Poland and always took it with him on his trips.'
Every one of us has experienced a coincidence - however trivial - at some time or other. But some of the extreme examples seem to defy all logic, luck or reason.
Powers of the Universe
It is not surprising, therefore, that the
of coincidence' has excited scientists, philosophers and mathematicians
for more than 2000 years. Running like a thread through all their theories
and speculations is one theme: what are coincidences about? Do they have
a hidden message for us? What unknown force do they represent? Only in this
century have any real answers been suggested, answers that strike at the
very roots of established science and prompt the question: are there powers
in the Universe of which we are still only dimly aware?
Early cosmologists believed that the world was held together by a kind of principle of wholeness. Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, who lived at some time between 460 and 375 BC, believed the Universe was joined together by 'hidden affinities' and wrote: 'There is one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy.' According to this theory, coincidence could be explained by 'sympathetic' elements seeking each other out.
The Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola wrote in 1557: 'Firstly, there is a unity in things whereby each thing is at one with itself. Secondly, there is the unity whereby one creature is united with the others and all parts of the world constitute one world.'
This belief has continued, in a barely altered form, in much more modern times. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) defined coincidence as 'the simultaneous occurrence of causally unconnected events.' He went on to suggest that simultaneous events ran in parallel lines and the selfsame event, although a link in totally different chains, nevertheless falls into place in both, so that the fate of one individual invariably fits the fate of another, and each is the hero of his own drama while simultaneously figuring in a drama foreign to him. This is something that surpasses our powers of comprehension and can only be conceived as possible by the virtue of the most wonderful pre-established harmony. Everyone must participate in it. Thus everything is interrelated and mutually attuned.
Probing the future
The idea of a 'collective unconscious' -an underground storehouse of memories through which minds can communicate - has been debated by several thinkers. One of the more extreme theories to explain coincidencc was put forward by the British mathematician Adrian Dobbs in the 1960s. He coined the word 'psitron' to describe an unknown force that probed, like radar, a second time dimension that was probabilistic rather than deterministic. The psitron absorbed future probabilities and relayed them back to the present, bypassing the normal human senses and somehow conveying the information directly to the brain.
The first person to study the laws of coincidence scientifically was Dr Paul Kammerer, Director of the Institute of Experimental Biology in Vienna. From the age of 20, he started to keep a 'logbook' of coincidences. Many were essentially trivial: people's names that kept cropping up in separate conversations, successive concert or cloakroom tickets with the same number, a phrase in a book that kept recurring in real life. For hours, Kammerer sat on park benches recording the people who wandered past, noting their sex, age, dress, whether they carried walking sticks or umbrellas. After making the necessary allowances for things like rush-hour, weather and time of year, he found the results broke down into 'clusters of numbers' of a kind familiar to statisticians, gamblers, insurance companies and opinion pollsters.
Kammerer called the phenomenon 'seriality', and in 1919 he published his conclusions in a book called Das Gesetz der Serie (The law of seriality). Coincidences, he claimed, came in series - or 'a recurrence or clustering in time or space whereby the individual numbers in the sequence are not connected by the same active cause.'
Coincidence, suggested Kammerer, was merely the tip of an iceberg in a larger cosmic principle that mankind, as yet, hardly recognises.
Like gravity, it is a mystery; but unlike gravity, it acts selectively to bring together in space and time things that possess some affinity. 'We thus arrive,' he concluded, 'at the image of a world mosaic or cosmic kaleidoscope, which, in spite of constant shufflings and rearrangements, also takes care of bringing like and like together.'
The great leap forward happened 50 years later, when two of Europe's most brilliant minds collaborated to produce the most searching book on the powers of coincidence - one that was to provoke both controversy and attack from rival theorists.
The two men were Wolfgang Pauli -whose daringly conceived exclusion principle earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics - and the Swiss psychologist-philosopher, Professor Carl Gustav Jung. Their treatise bore the unexciting title: Synchronitity, an acausal connecting principle. Described by one American reviewer as 'the paranormal equivalent of a nuclear explosion', it used the term 'synchronicity' to extend Kammerer' stheory of seriality.
According to Pauli, coincidences were 'the visible traces of untraceable
principles'. Coincidences, elaborated Jung, whether they come singly or in
series, are manifestations of a barely understood universal principle that
operates quite independently of the known laws of physics. Interpreters of
the Paul/Jung theory have concluded that telepathy, precognition and coincidences
themselves are all manifestations of a single mysterious force at work in
the Universe that is trying to impose its own kind of discipline on the utter
confusion of human life.
Of all contemporary thinkers, none has written more extensively about the theory of coincidence than Arthur Koestler, who sums up the phenomenon in the vivid phrase 'puns of destiny'.
One particularly striking 'pun' was related to Koestler by a 12-year-old English schoolboy named Nigel Parker:
Many years ago, the American horror-story writer, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a book called The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. In it, Mr Pym was travelling in a ship that wrecked. The four survivors were in an open boat for many days before they decided to kill and eat the cabin boy whose name was Richard Parker.
Some years later, in the summer of 1884, my great-grandfather's cousin was
cabin boy in the yawl Mignonette when she foundered, and the four
survivors were in an open boat for many days. Eventually, the three senior
members of the crew killed and ate the cabin boy. His name was Richard
Eminent scientists have studied coincidence. We present their findings on page 618 Strange tricks of fate
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