Sunday, January 24, 2016

Serendipity? Coincidence? Or Is Everything Just Connected?

We tend to see coincidences all the time, that there's a million to one chance of these things happening.  But I'm convinced it's just that most people are bad at math and worse at statistics and probability.  I did a post in 2014 on a chance meeting I had once where it turned out the odds were not really as great as they first seemed.

That's all introduction to two connections that came from reading last week.  Amazing how reading books fills in holes in one's knowledge.  I'd picked up two books from my daughter and son-in-laws bookshelves while waiting for things to get moving.  One fairly deep, one more a sensational "action packed thrill ride" as the back cover described it.

1.  Here's a headline from last week:
"Putin's agents accused of killing Litvinenko left polonium radiation in British embassy"
Normally, I'd have just read the polonium part and it wouldn't have meant anything.  It would have been just another word.  Even though I didn't understand it, I got the context, and probably wouldn't have looked it up.  Though blogging has gotten me to look up things a lot more so I don't miss something before I post.

But I've been reading a biography of Marie Curie - Obsessive Genius  by Barbara Goldsmith.  As part of Curie's discovery of radioactivity and of radium, she and her husband Pierre also discovered another radioactive element which she called polonium after her native country Poland. (Her maiden name was Sklodowski.)  The discussion of the process of discovering polonium suggests the difficulty of separating it from other substances and of measuring it, but also of its power:

"Pierre scrawled in their workbook that Marie had produced a substance accompanying bismuth that was 17 times more radioactive than pure uranium alone, then two weeks later 150 times as radioactive, then 300, then 330.  The radioactivity of this last substance was so great that Marie was convinced she had discovered a new element.  But how to confirm it?  A sure way was by a fetid now as spectroscopy and the EPCI was fortunate in having a resident expert in this field, Eugéne Demarçay.  Spectroscopy involved the heating of an element until it became a glowing gas and then refracting the light it emitted through a prism.  This resulted in a rainbow pattern of light, or spectra.  No two elements produced the same pattern of light.  .  .  Demarçay tested Marie's substance but said it was not sufficiently pure to produce a spectrum.  Though bitterly disappointed, she marched back to the laboratory.  Within ten days she had, in her words, "obtained a substance 400 times as active as uranium alone."  Demarçay tested this substance, but once again could not produce a clear spectral line." [p. 86]
But given other researchers racing to publish, they published their results, with appropriate qualifications, and eventually, the existence of a new element, polonium, was established.


2.  Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child's Bad Luck And Trouble, finds himself in Seattle (as I do right now.)  He had to immediately get to LA.
"[He] bought a one-way ticket on United to LAX.  He used his passport for ID and his ATM card as a debit card.  The one-way walk-up fare was outrageous.  Alaska Airlines would have been cheaper, but Reacher hated Alaska Airlines.  They put a scripture card on their meal trays.  Ruined his appetite."
I did have to smile.   I fly on Alaska Airlines a lot.   I also had to look at when the book was published. Copyright was 2007.  I remember those prayer cards.  They were religiously fairly bland, but still irksome to have a corporation that had me locked in to flying tube for several hours telling me that I needed to pray.  But the cards are gone now.   Alaska Airlines didn't stop using the prayer cards until 2012.  Of course, the free meal trays on flights are also gone.  I wonder how long it took Alaska Airlines folks to find out they'd been slammed in a "#1 New York Times Bestselling author" as the book jacket proclaims.  I guess that means that at least one of his books had been number one, but not this one.


Coincidences?  That I read about polonium in the news and in the book at just about the same time?  No.  Many books I read connect directly to something else that's going on while I'm reading the book. If you read a lot, you're going to know more.  If you know enough stuff, you're going to find connections to what you know everywhere.  And as you know more, words like polonium take on deeper meanings, ideas grow from slogans to complex relationships.  You start seeing patterns.  Things start to make sense. The complexity part was one of the reasons I posted the cartoon the other day.

1 comment:

  1. When it (often) happens to me, I know I'm connected to the so-called universe, that I'm paying attention and still have curiosity -- the key to not getting old, IMHO.

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