The 9-11 Lottery Coincidence

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 appears the first weekend of every month.

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