An encounter in a yarn shop in Tartu made my day, and inspired me to write an English version of the previous blog post Et statistisk mirakel.
Ellis Island. July, 2014:
The Frey Frøslies were touring the States. After visiting relatives in Minnesota, an old class mate in Washington, and being totally soaked in Niagara Falls, we ran through twelve thousand tourist attractions in New York, including the National Immigration Museum at Ellis Island.
Suddenly, while I was pretending to do a rather harsh interview of my pretending-to-immigrate-children-in-the-early-1900s, we unexpectedly met Kathrine and Helge, fellow musicians in our Oslo-based amateur symphony orchestra.
The tale of an encounter like this is a classic within the tales of the unlikely happenings: You meet your youngest child’s class mate at a small outdoor restaurant in Palma. Your GP in a sauna in Finland. Your ex-boyfriend in a balcony box in Sydney Opera house. Helene in LEGOland. And in the seat next to you during a 19 hour flight to Peru – there is your gymnastics teacher.
Everybody has a tale of the unlikely to tell. An then they turn around to me (the statistician):
–What are the odds?
First and foremost: No! I have no intention of doing the maths of encounters.
Secondly: Consider all the people you *do* know, but whom you *don’t* meet. Think of all the time you have spent travelling, without stumbling across any of your neighbours; all the strolls you have taken along the main street, without meeting or seeing any of your class mates (or your GP or your gymnastics teacher); all the hours in planes or trains, where your only travelling companions have been whining children and unknown, but talkative old ladies.
If you combine the number of people you know with the amount of time you spend travelling, there will be an almost infinite number of possibilities for unexpected meetings. All this taken into consideration, encounters are most likely. And due to this vast potential, probability will at some point strike with full positive power, and push nice people like Kathrine and Helge in your direction at Ellis Island.
But randomness can also be frightening. If three of your neighbours were diagnosed with the same type of cancer during a year, it would make you shudder.
Precisely because such meetings and observations are nice, frightening, unexpected, or display a pattern (humans have a thing for recognizable patterns, and tend to see them also when there are none), our attention is drawn to them. Not surprisingly, we remember the meetings that happened better than the meetings that never took place. We notice the three yellow cars in a row, the three purple beads, feel uncomfortable by the fact that three neighbours were diagnosed with cancer, and claim that
«This cannnot be a coincindence!«.
But that is exactly what it is. It takes more than some randomness to impress a statistician.
But coincidences may be so extreme that they impress even the statistician. For such occasions, my husband Ole has defined the term A statistical miracle.
2012, February 24., Friday:
I bought a ticket in the Friday wine lottery at work (which I usually don’t), and won a bottle of quite expensive red wine. When I came home, I learned that Ole also bought a wine lottery ticket, and that he also won. What a coincidence! By the way, the date is easy to remember, as it is Ole’s birthday. Another coincidence. Then both of us took the bottles out from our backpacks and – blimey – it was the same brand of wine!
It was A Statistical Miracle!
In my original blog post I stated that it would have been a statistical miracle if this post had anything to do with knitting.
Then Tartu happened.
The previous week I joined the Nordic Conference in Mathematical Statistics, NORDSTAT2018. I was invited to give the talk «How to build confidence» in a session about teaching statistics, and spent most of my leisure time to prepare for my talk.
Preparing time aside, since I have a Popular Science grant from the Norwegian Research Council to develop this blog, I did find time to visit the yarn shop across the street, and started filling up my generously large suitcase.
However, Google had told me there was yet another yarn shop in Tartu, Aardla Kaubandus. So, with 53 minutes to spend at the last day of the conference, I taxied in a hurry to the most unlikely yarn shop venue, and found it hidden in the backyard of a dental clinic, with one lady at the counter and just one customer in addition to me, jogging in with my NORDSTAT nametag around my neck. (Knitters: This is a hidden gem! If you are in Tartu, visit this place!)
The place was simply packed with wonderful yarn! While i swirled around in the small room, trying to get an overview of the treasures (and grinning like an idiot), the other customer asked with a smile: -So, you’re at NORDSTAT?
I was really confused. I mean, which regular yarn customer in a backyard yarn shop would be familiar with this conference in mathematical statistics? Replying to my baffled expression, she added -I’m a statistician, too.
Now, it is my turn to turn around to you, dear readers:
-What are the odds?!
Anastassia, this blog post is inspired by our unexpected meeting and our talk (it turned out we had much more in common than our occupation and yarn love) when you kindly gave me a ride back to the conference you didn’t attend yourself. Now that we have met once, out next meeting will less likely be a random one. Thank you for making my day!
And to the rest of you: Keep enjoying the statistical miracles of life!