“The single most important thing to understand is that in most cases of startling coincidences it is impossible to make even a rough estimate of their probability. They are what mathematicians call problems that are not ‘well formed.'”
—Martin Gardner, The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold?
How disappointing. The whole reason–well, the main reason–I went ahead and ordered a copy of the late Martin Gardner’s 1986 book was that I’d hoped Gardner, once a mathematics columnist for Scientific American, might give me some rules of thumb for estimating the likelihood of a yes or a no for questions of the can-it-be-coincidence? variety. And now he tells me it can’t be done.
Questions like these:
Example #1: On February 10, 1964, the TV science-fiction series “The Outer Limits” airs a show called “The Bellero Shield,” featuring an alien with eyes that seem to wrap around the side of his face. On February 22, 1964, UFO abductee Barney Hill, under hypnosis, attributes the same sort of eyes to his alien captors. (And draws a rough sketch of them.) Eyes of this sort, which have come to be called “wraparound eyes,” enter the abduction tradition at this point. There’s apparently no prior use of them in S-F either.
UFO skeptic Martin Kottmeyer, who first unearthed this amazing coincidence, notes another one just as remarkable. The “Bellero Shield” alien says that “in all the universes … all who have eyes have eyes that speak.” Barney, under hypnosis: “Only the eyes are talking to me. I–I–I–I don’t understand that.”
So obviously Barney’s been watching “The Outer Limits,” and its fictional alien has woven itself into the aliens Barney remembers, a mere 12 days later, as having taken him prisoner.
Barney’s widow Betty, confronted (in 1995) with Kottmeyer’s suggestion, denied that she and Barney ever watched “The Outer Limits,” or that they’d even heard of the show.
But with all due respect to the late Betty, I have to believe either that her memory was faulty, or else that sometime between February 10 and 22 Barney heard one of his friends or co-workers giving a blow-by-blow description of “The Bellero Shield” and its alien. Otherwise I’d have to say the parallel is pure coincidence, and although I can’t begin to estimate the mathematical probability of that being the case, it seems to me off-the-charts unlikely. Can it be coincidence? No way!
Example #2: Last December, my old friend Professor Marc Bregman (of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) sends an email telling me of a mask from the prehistoric Balkans, published by Marija Gimbutas in her book The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (1974; republished in a slightly different version, 1982). Although Marc isn’t particularly interested in UFOs, he’s struck by the mask’s resemblance to the alien face on the cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion, which he remembers from a lecture on UFOs I gave at UNC-G three years ago. I check this out, and I’m impressed also by how much they look alike. Very impressed.
I write to Martin Kottmeyer, and learn from him that there are probably a few new things under the sun, but this isn’t one of them. The resemblance was already noted, and used to support an ancient-aliens hypothesis, in Michael Hesemann’s UFOs–The Secret History (1998). Can it be coincidence? Or had Strieber’s aliens already landed in Kosovo–to be exact, at Predionica where the mask was found–in the fifth millennium BCE?
Or there’s a third option. Could Ted Jacobs, the artist who painted the alien portrait for the cover of Communion, have seen the Predionica mask? Could this extraordinary piece of archaic art have lodged itself in his mind, and emerged, perhaps unconsciously, as he tried to respond with his paintbrush to Strieber’s verbal cues?
Of course Jacobs could have read either the 1974 or the 1982 edition of Gimbutas’s book. But there’s a problem–part of the really striking resemblance of the Communion portrait to the Predionica mask lies in the colors, and all Gimbutas’s photos are black and white.
But surely the mask must have been published in color somewhere else prior to 1987, when Communion came out? I’d be willing to bet it was, and that Jacobs had seen it. But I can’t prove that.
If someone could prove to me that Jacobs hadn’t seen it, I’d say, well, it has to be coincidence. The ancient-alien explanation is for me a non-starter, especially given that Gimbutas embeds the mask securely within the art of the ancient Vinca culture from which it derives. But as long as we’ve got a more terrestrial option–sure, it can be coincidence, but is it likely to be? Again: no way!
(Moral: whether something can be coincidence or not depends in large measure on what the alternatives are.)
Example #3–and this is the one that sent me to Gardner’s book:
As Jeff Kripal mentions in his wonderful book Mutants & Mystics, about which I blogged three weeks ago, a popular writer of sea stories named Morgan Robertson (1861-1915) published in 1898 a novella called Futility, about the sinking of an “unsinkable” luxury ship called the Titan after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. 14 years later an “unsinkable” luxury ship called the Titanic perished in almost exactly the same way. Both catastrophes, the fictional and afterward the real, happened near midnight on an April night; in both the collision involved the scraping of the starboard side rather than a head-on crash. And the horrendous fatalities, on both the Titanic and (even worse) the Titan, resulted from incredible hubris on the part of those responsible. Since the ship couldn’t be sunk, why bother equipping it with lifeboats for everyone aboard?
Can it be coincidence? Or an extraordinary proof of precognition on Robertson’s part? (Robertson himself seems to have believed the latter: that when he was “in the zone” with his writing, he’d entered a realm in which distinctions of past, present and future dissolved.)
“How improbable were the parallels? This is impossible to answer because it is not a well-formed problem. There is no way to estimate, even crudely, the relevant probabilities. However, the parallels become less miraculous if you imagine yourself in Robertson’s shoes at the time he wrote Futility. It is near the end of the century. You are a well-known writer of sea tales, and you have decided to weave an adventure around the greatest sea disaster you can imagine. How would you go about constructing the plot?
“First of all you would invent the largest ocean liner that could be built at the time. As someone thoroughly familiar with the latest developments in shipbuilding you would envision a liner larger than any previously made, yet still within the capacity of the day’s technology. … What should you call your supership? Titan would certainly not be inappropriate.”
I can give only these few specimens of Gardner’s elegant demonstration of how Robertson’s fantasy might have foreshadowed the great tragedy of the new century. If you want more, you’ll have to get hold of his book. Am I persuaded by it? I have to admit: not entirely.
But I don’t want to believe in precognition either. The philosophical implications are too daunting. So is the Titan-Titanic parallel just one of those wild, wild coincidences that happen every now and then?
There’s another possibility, which Gardner mentions and, with good reason, dismisses. Could the builders and (more important) the namers of the Titanic have been aware of and influenced by Robertson’s story? Maybe, Gardner thinks. But “it is difficult to imagine that anyone would want to name a big new liner after a fictional ship that went down when it hit an iceberg.”
Unless that was part of the hubris of those who created this floating palace and set it upon the waves? As if to shake their fists at God, or Destiny, or whatever you want to call it, and yell: “You may have sunk Robertson’s Titan! But You won’t sink our Titanic!”
And then go on to embed, within the product of their arrogance, the seeds of its debacle?
The ancient Greeks, who gave us the word “hubris,” well knew the dark impulses of the soul that drive human beings, against all reason, to work our own destruction.
” … but the great sinner in his insolence
yelled that the gods’ will and the sea were beaten,
and this loud brag came to Poseidon’s ears.
He swung the trident
in his massive hands
and in one shock from top to bottom split
that promontory, toppling into the sea
the fragment where the great fool sat.
So the vast ocean had its will with Aias,
drunk in the end on salt spume as he drowned.”
(Odyssey, Book 4, tr. Robert Fitzgerald)
It was the Titanic‘s innocent passengers, of course, who drowned in the salt spume. But perhaps Homer could have imagined a Promethean logic of defiance that might have induced the ship’s creators to follow, consciously or unconsciously, in the traces of Robertson’s fictional Titan. To prove to themselves, if no one else, that human skill was more than a match for the gods’ will and the sea put together …
Or then again, maybe it’s just coincidence.
by David Halperin
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