March 25th, 2010

Gil Marsh cover

What are the chances of that?

Several years ago I boarded a train in New Haven, Connecticut, on my way to New York City. It was a Friday afternoon in late January. A middle-aged man seated himself a few rows back and took out his cell phone just as the train pulled out of the station. He launched into a series of very loud conversations that lasted the entire trip.

As we made our way down the New Haven line, the train filled. By the time we reached Stamford, the last stop before our final sprint to the city, people were standing in the aisles. The more people boarded, the louder the man got.

I have no idea what the folks on the other end of his conversations were saying, but each new call started exactly the same. “Hi. It’s so-and-so. I’m on a train to New York from New Haven. Did you know, I ran into a Yale grad student boarding this very train. Yale! What are the chances of that?”

I heard this repeated more times than I cared to count, and my irritation grew. By the time we reached Grand Central Station, I was cursing him under my breath. My one relief was that almost everyone else on the train seemed to be, too.

Now it wasn’t so much the volume that bothered me, annoying as it was, it was the repeated phrase, “What are the chances of that?”

Let’s see.

Yale is located in New Haven.

Most classes for the week are over by Friday afternoon.

New York is a prime destination for Yale students, for travel, business, or fun.

Grad students are more likely than undergraduates to have a life outside of campus and do things like, you know, visit friends in New York City.

New Haven is the first station of the line.

So what are the chances that you might run into a random Yale graduate student in New Haven on a train bound for New York City on a Friday afternoon when the university is in session?

Pretty close to 100%.

Somehow this xkcd comic reminded me of that interminable train ride.

Rollover: "Statistics suggest that there should be tons of alien encounter stories, and in practice there are tons of alien encounter stories. This is known as Fermi's Lack-of-a-Paradox."