November 22, 1991

A World Full of Miracles

Miracles appear to be so, according to our ignorance of nature, and not according to the essence of nature.

Michel de Montaigne, 1580

If we consider a miracle as something which is extremely unlikely to happen, then we are surrounded by miracles. Miracles are so common that we don't even recognize them as such.

I am a miracle and, although I am reluctant to admit it, so are you. Dr. William Cosby points out that there are 250 million sperm in a single ejaculate. If any sperm, other than the one that did reach the egg, reached it, you wouldn't even exist. Therefore, the odds of your existing are greater than 250,000,000 to 1. If you use the same probability for your father and mother, grandfathers and grandmothers, back to some primitive organism, the probability of your existing at all is so infinitesimal that you would consider it almost impossible. But it is not impossible or you wouldn't be here, nor would I, nor the tree outside my bedroom window. It is important to distinguish between improbable and impossible. An impossible event can never ever happen, but improbable events happen all the time.

To a child, sleight of hand coin tricks seem miraculous. To the knowledgeable, coin tricks aren't particularly impressive; it is the ordinary that is miraculous. It is the child itself that is the true miracle.

What most people do not understand is that every improbable event will occur at some time. If the chances of winning a lottery is one in a million, and there are ten million players, approximately ten people will win. If the chances of a large meteor striking the earth is one in a hundred million per year, in one or two hundred million years there is a good possibility that a meteor will strike the earth. Since our life span is, at best, 100 years long, the chances of it happening in our lifetime would be very very small.

The odds of a man getting breast cancer is one in a hundred thousand. If you are a man with the disease, it makes no difference what the odds were; for you it is a certainty. If a man is struck and killed by lightning, it makes no difference what the odds were before he was struck.

A friend of mine gave me a newspaper clipping that cites Princeton Professor Burton Malkiel who provides an elegant illustration of the operation of the laws of chance and how we view the consequences. I have modified his example as follows:

Suppose that we have a million people in a coin tossing contest. If you toss a head, you win. If you toss tails, you lose and are eliminated from the contest. Everyone tosses his coin and, according to the laws of chance, half a million people toss heads. The winners toss again and this time half, or 250,000, toss heads, and 250,000 are eliminated. On the next toss, it is 125,000, then 62,500, 31,250, 15,625, 7,812, 3,906, 1,953, 977, 488, 244, 122, 61, 30, and, with the next toss, we are left with about 15 people who have each tossed 16 consecutive heads. That's miraculous! The odds against tossing 16 consecutive heads are 65,536 to 1. If I took a coin and tossed it 8 times and got heads each time, you would suspect that I was using a two-headed coin. Yet, here are 15 people who tossed 16 consecutive heads in a row with a fair coin. The odds of that happening 15 times is 1 in 1.77 x 10 to the 72nd power, or about one or two followed by 72 zeros. How about that for miraculous?

So the next time that someone implies that you are just an ordinary slob, you can tell him unequivocally that he is wrong! You are a miraculous event in a miraculous world, in a miraculous universe.

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