Sweet Serendipity

November 8, 2012

In 2009, Dick Cavett posted "Seriously, What Are the Odds?" and pondered on the meaning of happenstance. This makes perfect sense when you realize how many people are connected through absolute random chance. Friends, family, lovers, and spouses owe a lot of their personal happiness with each other to the chance that could bring them together. Whether it is that two people meet at just the right time or one person traveled 700+ miles for one reason and ended up finding love, the absolute randomness that brings two people together is astounding. 


The Concept of Love!

Where would the human race be if Penicillin had not been accidentally discovered? How would the movie industry be changed had John Wayne not applied for the props department at Fox and became friends with John Ford? How would millions of children have dealt with their need for something to fill their obsessive voids had Ash not found Pikachu? 


Serendipity plays a large role in the lives of millions of people everyday, and, not surprisingly, "serendipity" has been voted one of the ten English words hardest to translate. The definition often eludes many native English speakers and, therefore, translating becomes a bit difficult. Luckily, if you are reading this, you can, at the very least, understand the basic fundamentals of English. I have provided a brief description below:

Serendipity: The faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for 

The most telling word in the definition would have to be phenomenon. Phenomenon is generally used when the subject matter can be quantified. If something is quantified, could it then be measured and predicted?

Taking a Chance

Paul Kammerer, an Austrian (by choice) biologist (by birth) born in 1880, took a notice of the randomness that makes up life. A clearly troubled man with a tendency to threaten suicide, Kammerer had many interesting quirks. He collected large populations of toads and kept them in unnatural environments to watch their growth, he obsessively recorded the amount of people that would cross his path in a given time and the objects they were carrying, and he came up with a mind-blowing scientific theory that most people have never even heard. This theory, dubbed Seriality, was (and is) largely disregarded by the scientific community. The basic structure is that probability is measured in waves and coincidence is only a consequence of the peaks of the waves. His belief was that by studying these waves and measuring their peaks over time, we could make decisions based on the likelihood of coincidence occurring. The scientific community scoffed collectively. If, however, we accept this as true, we can easily see the truth of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this series, Douglas Adams introduced the Infinite Improbability Drive. Used mainly as a Deus Ex Machina throughout the series, the ridiculousness of the technology is actually based on real science (forgive the Wikipedia citing):

"Infinite Improbability Drive" 
It is based on a particular perception of quantum theory: a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place, such as near the nucleus of an atom, but there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin (for example close to a distant star). Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space (or hyperspace, for that matter), if you had sufficient control of probability. 

Controlling probability isn’t exactly what Kammerer had in mind, but the fundamentals stay the same. Probability is not only measurable, but we have entire fields of math based on the subject. Since we can measure the probability of an event, why isn’t coincidence just as measurable? Once we understand coincidence, the probability of measuring serendipity wouldn’t be that far off. By understanding when things could randomly occur, we could determine the chances that something good could occur. The ramifications could be more than the human race could take (imagine deciding not to get out of bed because the chances that something good happening to you randomly is severely reduced), but, then again, this isn’t much different than the daily horoscopes printed in papers that thousands of people read. On any given day, a horoscope could tell you to be “on guard” as the day progresses, and, therefore, the reader experiences a change in their perception of the day. Some laugh at the idea of anyone reading something that, at least on the surface, is devoid of a scientific basis, but many find comfort in their words. Those horoscopes give a sense of spirituality and individuality to the monotonous events of the day.

More Popular than Gefilte Fish at a Seder

Life, as Carl Jung believed, has a spiritual purpose beyond material goals. This journey of individuation gives credence to the claims of Synchronicity, also a belief of Jung’s. Many scientist’s also scoffed at this idea (Scientists, it turns out, are the adult equivalent of sarcastic middle school girls). 

"The Mystery of Chance" says, 
Where it is plain, felt Jung, that no causal connection can be demonstrated between two events, but where a meaningful relationship nevertheless exists between them, a wholly different type of principle is likely to be operating. Jung called this principle "synchronicity."

The connection between these two distinctive thoughts (Seriality and Synchronicity) is easily discovered, but an incredibly interesting coincidence is found when you study the two founding fathers of these principles. Carl Jung, a psychologist and psychiatrist who helped introduce a myriad of concepts to modern psychology, and Paul Kammerer, a biologist whose contributions are largely overlooked, were born within 5 years of each other. Their independent beliefs and obsessions with chances developed simultaneously without having ever met. In fact, when Jung wrote his essay, Synchronicity, he drew upon Kammerer’s work as a fundamental study and inspiration, but only after he had already developed the idea independently. The belief in some greater meaning to events, whether spiritual or physical, illustrates a popularity of the subject on, at the least, a subconscious level. While history largely glosses over Kammerer, it embraces Jung. The idea that serendipity is a collection of events that are interpreted as significant is almost automatically more acceptable than the belief that it is measurable and as usable as any other form of science. Science doesn’t like to believe in chance.

Science and Stuff

Science may not believe in coincidence, but that doesn’t mean that coincidence does not believe in science. The commonly accepted theory of creation is that gravity forced the beginning molecules of our planet together in such a way that, defying normal understanding of the length of time it takes for life to start on a planet or how DNA could exist as a DOUBLE helix, life sprang from nothing. That’s a common scientific explanation for creation: something that came from nothing for a reason. The Big Bang is another example of something springing from nothing. First, there was nothing...



Shit got real (pardon my English). 

Science tries to explain everything, but there are some gaps. Random chance takes that initial step in helping us understand the world around us and filling those gaps. Had water not bound together in such a way that, when frozen, the two Hydrogen atoms created a space between the two molecules, we would not have sustainable life on this planet. For those of you that don’t know, when water freezes it becomes ice. When ice forms, because of the way the two molecules combine, it expands. When ice expands, it becomes less dense than the water that surrounds it, and, thus, it floats. If ice were to sink, rivers and oceans would freeze from the bottom to the top. Fish would instantly become extinct. Life would have never been able to develop on this planet. 

The life that developed, by the way, is created with Carbon. 
Carbon, many chemists agree, is a whore.
It turns out that Carbon proves that being a whore is actually good for life on this planet. Without Carbons longs chain we would not have sugars, alcohol, or fat (all essential to life before it even begins). Go Carbon (you dirty whore). 

Chemistry is full of instances where, had things developed slightly differently, life would not exist. We accept these as laws of nature because this is how they have always been and they continue to be just as obstinate as history detailed. This is how we have come to view the world. Life exists because it does and there are no exceptions to laws of nature. We’ve even developed something called Grand Unified Theory to help us understand the interactions between particles and, many scientists agree, this leads us to understanding the Theory of Everything (which is not meant to be confused with the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything (which is 42)). 

The point is that we tend to believe everything is explainable. Everything is quantifiable. Everything is just a measure in the structure of life. If we are to believe the Grand Unified Theory, however, that would mean leptons (such as electrons and neutrinos) and baryons (such as protons) are equivalent. With this to be the case, that would mean that a proton could break down into positrons and pions. If this were to happen, absolutely everything would end. Everything. Yes. This means you.

Thankfully, though, protons haven’t begun decaying. They persist. They live and, as a consequence, so do you. Life gave you a chance. Even when science begins to explain everything, it doesn’t always get things right. This could easily be applied to chance.

If we are to believe in proton decay, then we are to believe that, even beyond the threat of entropic heat death, life has an eventual and very real end. It seems that, given that life grew from absolute chance, a meaning materializes. There is a synchronicity to life. Without the random chance that brought together the first atoms to create the first molecules we would never have the water that sustained this planet. Without water we would not have life. 

Out of every star in the universe, ours sustains life. Our star, our Sun, is billions of years younger than others. Not only this, but many other stars have Earth-like planets, and, therefore, the ability to sustain intelligent life. In fact, this is what the Drake Equation tries to explain. The Drake Equation is a mathematical equation used to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy, but, so far, our answers don’t match with the number of civilizations we have met (the answer is zero). This is another problem to which science can’t seem to find an answer. We have even named it (The Fermi Paradox). With all of these theories in play, why is it so ridiculous that chance has anything to do with life? Serendipity rules the beginning of life, and without life we certainly wouldn’t have Carl Jung, Paul Kammerer, Synchronicity, Seriality, or the words you just read. 

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