I’m normally a fan of NPR’s Radiolab podcast. Sure, it tends to be fluffy, but it’s interestingly produced and tackles science in a way that emphasizes human curiosity and wonder and appeals to a wide audience. The latest episode, a short titled The Universe Knows My Name, shot clear past a ton of fascinating science and straight into the worst kind of inane mystery mongering.
The show is all about luck and fate; the ways in which the universe can seem to be playing games with our lives. Hosts Jad and Robert interview writer Paul Auster, who shares ostensibly true strange tales about coincidences and “rhyming events” from his life and the lives of his friends.
Cut to a fun interview with a cartoon historian (I want to know how one acquires such a title), discussing the enduring popularity of Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. He speculates that people tend to relate to the coyote’s situation, utterly at the mercy of an antagonistic universe that will never give him a break. It satisfies a very primal egotistical urge in us. In a way, we want to believe that yes, the universe does know who we are, even if it is always out to get us.
The show ends with one more story from Auster, closing with his conclusion that these events are “inexplicable, but interesting”.
NO! NO! NO!
I was totally with them until “inexplicable”. It was a great intro with relatable human stories which could have set us up to dig into the science of probability, coincidence, and luck. And then it went nowhere. They left it without even an inkling of a notion that there actually is science on this stuff. Richard Wiseman’s books are full of insights into these kinds of events, and why they can seem so significant to us, yet be largely unremarkable in the grand scheme of things.
Every minute, billions of people have trillions of tiny, momentary experiences. It’s a simple numbers game to figure out that seemingly strange alignments and coincidences are utterly ordinary from a cosmic perspective. A one in a million chance of something happening becomes an inevitability in the face of those odds.
This is not to say that I don’t find such experiences to be of value. I’m not dismissing the stories. I think they’re wonderful and human. But they’re just the beginning. Exploring the hows and whys of such stories with real science makes them even better. This installment of Radiolab missed that entirely.
Further material on the topic: