The 9-11 Lottery Coincidence

Everything's connected: the attacks on America last year, the New York State lottery, the collapse of WorldCom, the Bush Administration's proposed war against Iraq, the death of quarterback Johnny Unitas, and many other private events. To top this off, Arthur C. Clarke anticipated some of these incidents decades ago.

Let me back up a bit. On Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002 — 9/11/02 — the New York State lottery numbers were 911, an eerie coincidence that set many people to thinking or, perhaps more accurately, to not thinking.

A natural question comes to mind: How likely is this? After all, the lottery took place in New York state on the anniversary of the mass murder exactly one year before.

These factors are not relevant, however. On any given day, each of the 1,000 possiblities — 000, 001, ... 233, ..., 714, ..., 998, 999 — is as likely to come up as any other. This is true of Sept. 11 as well, so the probability that 911 would come up on that date is simply 1 in a 1,000. This probability is small, but not minuscule.

A Better Question

The broader question that should come to mind, however, is: What is the probability that some event of this general sort — something that is resonant with the date or likely to stimulate us to think of it — would occur on Sept. 11? The answer is impossible to say with any precision, but it is, I argue, quite high.

First off, there are two daily drawings in the New York State lottery so there were two chances for 911 to come up that day, increasing the probability to (a bit under) 1 in 500. More importantly, there were innumerable other ways for an uncanny coincidence to occur.

How many addresses or license plates, for example, have 911 in them? At each of these addresses and for each of these vehicles, something could have occurred that caused people to think of Sept. 11. Possibilities include an accident, murder, or arrest of someone suspected of terrorism, related to a victim of the attack, or otherwise associated with it.

Or consider sports scores and statistics. There are countless ways for 911 to occur here. One coincidence that I personally noted involved the death of Johnny Unitas, the former Baltimore Colts star, on Sept. 11th. Arguably the best quarterback in history, he might be ranked No. 1 among NFL quarterbacks. Combine this ranking with his jersey number 19 and you have yet another instance of 911, albeit in a different order, on Sept. 11.

You might say that there is no message associated with Unitas' death, but even those people believing in the significance of the 911 drawing can't say what its message was.

Stocks, War, and Arthur C. Clarke

The stock market is also a major producer of numbers, many of them, it seems, totally fictional.

This brings to mind WorldCom, whose collapse dwarfed Enron's and whose stock was selling a bit under $64 per share a couple of years ago. The 3 billion or so outstanding shares are now worthless, so $191 billion in investors' wealth has disappeared. Those same three digits again! Oddly, $191 billion is very close to the Pentagon's estimated cost for the proposed war in Iraq, which, some claim, is sheltering al Qaeda members, bringing us back once again to Sept. 11. Talk about circular reasoning!

Another "close" example is the Sept. 10 closing value of the September S&P 500 futures contracts. You guessed right; it was 911. And yet another lottery coincidence occurred on Nov. 12 of last year, when 587 was drawn on the same day that Flight 587 crashed into Queens.

The bottom line is that this is too easy to do. There are an indeterminate number of ways for such events to come about even though the probability of any particular one of them is tiny. Furthermore, after such an event occurs, people glom onto its tiny probability and neglect to ask the more pertinent question: How likely is something vaguely like this to occur?

Keep this in mind when you read the following excerpt from the great science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. In his 1973 novel, Rendezvous with Rama, Clarke wrote: "At 0940 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball.... Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate.... The cities of Padua and Verona were wiped from the face of the earth, and the last glories of Venice sank forever..."

Who would have thought that Arthur C. Clarke was the brains behind Osama bin Laden?

Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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