Mysteries of Mind Space and Time

Above: the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy by the anarchist Bresci on 29 July 1900. His death and important events in his life were astonishingly closely paralleled by the life of another Umberto - a restaurant proprietor in a small town in northern Italy

Every one of us has, at some time, experienced a coincidence. Mathematicians explain them away as mere chance events - but there are those who seek deeper reasons. PERROTT PHILLIPS investigates

Below: the german philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who believed that coincidences were a reflection o fthe 'wonderful pre - established harmony' of the Universe

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.
The lying-in-stae of Pope Paul VI. At 9.40pm on 6 August 1978,as the Pope lay dying,his bedside alarm clock - set for six in the morning - inexplicably began to ring

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 'theory 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?

The Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, one of a long line of thinkers, starting with Hippocrates, the 'father of medicine', who believed that the world was governed by a principle of wholeness and that coincidences could be explained as like events seeking each other out

These foolish things... The most striking coincidences often involve the most commonplace of objects or occasions, like the bizarre experience related by the Chicago newspaper columnist Irv Kupcinet (left):
'I had just checked into the Savoy Hotel in London. Opening a drawer in my room, I found, to my astonishment, that it contained some personal things belonging to a friend of mine, Harry Hannin, then with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
'Two days later, I received a letter from Harry, posted in the Hotel Meurice, in Paris, which began "You'll never believe this." Apparently, Harry had opened a drawer in his room and found a tie with my name on it. It was a room I had stayed in a few months earlier.'

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.

Dr Paul Kammerer who, in 1919, published the first systematic study of coincidence

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.

Above: Arthur Koestler, a science journalist who has written extensively about the search for a scientific explanation of coincidence -and its philosophical implications. It was he who coined the apt phrase 'puns of destiny' to describe the phenomenon

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.

The cluster effect

In his book Homo Faber Max Frisch tells the extraordinary story of a man who, through a series of coincidences, meets the daughter he never knew he had, falls in love with her and sets in motion a train of events that results in her death. But Faber, a rational man, refuses to see anything more than the laws of chance in his story:
'I don't deny that it was more than a coincidence which made things turn out as they did, it was a whole series of coincidences, . . . The occasional occurrence of the improbable does not imply the intervention of a higher power.
The term probability includes improbability at the extreme limits of probability, and when the improbable does occur this is no cause for surprise, bewilderment or mystification.
Few people could be so matter-of-fact in the face of the events Frisch describes - but Faber may be right. Every mathematician knows that a random distribution of events produces - surprisingly - a clustering effect, just as cherries randomly distributed in a cake will tend to be found in groups (left) rather than in the orderly arrangement one might expect (far left). The mathematician is not surprised by coincidences, or clusters of random events - but neither can he predict them!

Order out of chaos

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.

Left: Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958), the Nobel prize-winning physicist who, together with the eminent psychologist C.G. Jung, introduced the concept of synchronicity to help explain the occurrence of coincidences
Right: the decorated dome of the mosque of Madresh, Isfahan, Iran. The pattern represents the eternal pilgrimage of the soul - it unrolls in a continuous thread like the breath of the Universe, by which all things are connected. Modern physics suggests that this idea of 'interconnectedness' may be of use in providing non-causal explanations of events that are now dismissed as coincidence

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 Parker.
Such strange and seemingly meaningful incidents abound - can there really be no more to them than mere coincidence?

Eminent scientists have studied coincidence. We present their findings on page 618 Strange tricks of fate

Reproduced from THE UNEXPLAINED p594