From 11
August 2002 New York Times Sunday Magazine

The Odds of That


When the Miami Police first
found Benito Que, he was slumped on a desolate side

street, near the empty spot
where he had habitually parked his Ford Explorer. At

about the same time, Don
C. Wiley mysteriously disappeared. His car, a white

rented Mitsubishi Galant,
was abandoned on a bridge outside of Memphis, where he

had just had a jovial dinner
with friends. The following week, Vladimir

Pasechnik collapsed in London,
apparently of a stroke.

The list would grow to nearly
a dozen in the space of four nerve-jangling

months. Stabbed in Leesburg,
Va. Suffocated in an air-locked lab in Geelong,

Australia. Found wedged
under a chair, naked from the waist down, in a

blood-splattered apartment
in Norwich, England. Hit by a car while jogging.

Killed in a private plane
crash. Shot dead while a pizza delivery man served as

a decoy.

What joined these men was
their proximity to the world of bioterror and germ

warfare. Que, the one who
was car-jacked, was a researcher at the University of

Miami School of Medicine.
Wiley, the most famous, knew as much as anyone about

how the immune system responds
to attacks from viruses like Ebola. Pasechnik was

Russian, and before he defected,
he helped the Soviets transform cruise missiles

into biological weapons.
The chain of deaths — these three men and eight others

like them — began last
fall, back when emergency teams in moonsuits were

scouring the Capitol, when
postal workers were dying, when news agencies were on

high alert and the entire
nation was afraid to open its mail.

In more ordinary times, this
cluster of deaths might not have been noticed, but

these are not ordinary times.
Neighbors report neighbors to the F.B.I.;

passengers are escorted
off planes because they make other passengers nervous;

medical journals debate
what to publish, for fear the articles will be read by

evil eyes. Now we are spooked
and startled by stories like these — all these

scientists dying within
months of one another, at the precise moment when tiny

organisms loom as a gargantuan
threat. The stories of these dozen or so deaths

started out as a curiosity
and were transformed rumor by rumor into the specter

of conspiracy as they circulated
first on the Internet and then in the

mainstream media. What are
the odds, after all?

What are the odds, indeed?

For this is not about conspiracy
but about coincidence — unexpected connections

that are both riveting and
rattling. Much religious faith is based on the idea

that almost nothing is coincidence;
science is an exercise in eliminating the

taint of coincidence; police
work is often a feint and parry between those

trying to prove coincidence
and those trying to prove complicity. Without

coincidence, there would
be few movies worth watching (”Of all the gin joints

in all the towns in all
the world, she walks into mine”), and literary plots

would come grinding to a
disappointing halt. (What if Oedipus had not happened

to marry his mother? If
Javert had not happened to arrive in the town where

Valjean was mayor?)

The true meaning of the word
is ”a surprising concurrence of events, perceived

as meaningfully related,
with no apparent causal connection.” In other words,

pure happenstance. Yet by
merely noticing a coincidence, we elevate it to

something that transcends
its definition as pure chance. We are discomforted by

the idea of a random universe.
Like Mel Gibson’s character Graham Hess in M.

Night Shyamalan’s new movie
”Signs,” we want to feel that our lives are

governed by a grand plan.

The need is especially strong
in an age when paranoia runs rampant.

”Coincidence feels like
a loss of control perhaps,” says John Allen Paulos, a

professor of mathematics
at Temple University and the author of ”Innumeracy,”

the improbable best seller
about how Americans don’t understand numbers. Finding

a reason or a pattern where
none actually exists ”makes it less frightening,”

he says, because events
get placed in the realm of the logical. ”Believing in

fate, or even conspiracy,
can sometimes be more comforting than facing the fact

that sometimes things just

In the past year there has
been plenty of conspiracy, of course, but also a lot

of things have ”just happened.”
And while our leaders are out there warning us

to be vigilant, the statisticians
are out there warning that patterns are not

always what they seem. We
need to be reminded, Paulos and others say, that most

of the time patterns that
seem stunning to us aren’t even there. For instance,

although the numbers 9/11
(9 plus 1 plus 1) equal 11, and American Airlines

Flight 11 was the first
to hit the twin towers, and there were 92 people on

board (9 plus 2), and Sept.
11 is the 254th day of the year (2 plus 5 plus 4),

and there are 11 letters
each in ”Afghanistan,” ”New York City” and ”the

Pentagon” (and while we’re
counting, in George W. Bush), and the World Trade

towers themselves took the
form of the number 11, this seeming numerical message

is not actually a pattern
that exists but merely a pattern we have found. (After

all, the second flight to
hit the towers was United Airlines Flight 175, and the

one that hit the Pentagon
was American Airlines Flight 77, and the one that

crashed in a Pennsylvania
field was United Flight 93, and the Pentagon is

shaped, well, like a pentagon.)

The same goes for the way
we think of miraculous intervention. We need to be

told that those lucky last-minute
stops for an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s or to

pick up a watch at the repair
shop or to vote in the mayoral primary — stops

that saved lives of people
who would otherwise have been in the towers when the

first plane hit — certainly
looked like miracles but could have been predicted

by statistics. So, too,
can the most breathtaking of happenings — like the

sparrow that happened to
appear at one memorial service just as a teenage boy,

at the lectern eulogizing
his mom, said the word ”mother.” The tiny bird

lighted on the boy’s head;
then he took it in his hand and set it free.

Something like that has to
be more than coincidence, we protest. What are the

odds? The mathematician
will answer that even in the most unbelievable

situations, the odds are
actually very good. The law of large numbers says that

with a large enough denominator
— in other words, in a big wide world — stuff

will happen, even very weird
stuff. ”The really unusual day would be one where

nothing unusual happens,”
explains Persi Diaconis, a Stanford statistician who

has spent his career collecting
and studying examples of coincidence. Given that

there are 280 million people
in the United States, he says, ”280 times a day, a

one-in-a-million shot is
going to occur.”

Throw your best story at
him — the one about running into your childhood

playmate on a street corner
in Azerbaijan or marrying a woman who has a

birthmark shaped like a
shooting star that is a perfect match for your own or

dreaming that your great-aunt
Lucy would break her collarbone hours before she

actually does — and he
will nod politely and answer that such things happen all

the time. In fact, he and
his colleagues also warn me that although I pulled all

examples in the prior sentence
from thin air, I will probably get letters from

readers saying one of those
things actually happened to them.

And what of the deaths of
nearly a dozen scientists? Is it really possible that

they all just happened to
die, most in such peculiar, jarring ways, within so

short a time? ”We can never
say for a fact that something isn’t a conspiracy,”

says Bradley Efron, a professor
of statistics at Stanford. ”We can just point

out the odds that it isn’t.”


I first found myself wondering
about coincidence last spring when I read a small

news item out of the tiny
Finnish town of Raahe, which is 370 miles north of

Helsinki. On the morning
of March 5, two elderly twin brothers were riding their

bicycles, as was their habit,
completing their separate errands. At 9:30, one

brother was struck by a
truck along coastal Highway 8 and killed instantly.

About two hours later and
one mile down the same highway, the other brother was

struck by a second truck
and killed.

”It was hard to believe
this could happen just by chance,” says Marko Salo,

the senior constable who
investigated both deaths for the Raahe Police

Department. Instead, the
department looked for a cause, thinking initially that

the second death was really
a suicide.

”Almost all Raahe thought
he did it knowing that his brother was dead,” Salo

says of the second brother’s
death. ”They thought he tried on purpose. That

would have explained things.”
But the investigation showed that the older

brother was off cheerfully
getting his hair cut just before his own death.

The family could not immediately
accept that this was random coincidence,

either. ”It was their destiny,”
offers their nephew, who spoke with me on

behalf of the family. It
is his opinion that his uncles shared a psychic bond

throughout their lives.
When one brother became ill, the other one fell ill

shortly thereafter. When
one reached to scratch his nose, the other would often

do the same. Several years
ago, one brother was hit and injured by a car (also

while biking), and the other
one developed pain in the same leg.

The men’s sister had still
another theory entirely. ”She worried that it was a

plot to kill both of them,”
the nephew says, describing his aunt’s concerns

that terrorists might have
made their way to Raahe. ”She was angry. She wanted

to blame someone. So she
said the chances of this happening by accident are


Not true, the statisticians
say. But before we can see the likelihood for what

it is, we have to eliminate
the distracting details. We are far too taken, Efron

says, with superfluous facts
and findings that have no bearing on the statistics

of coincidence. After our
initial surprise, Efron says that the real yardstick

for measuring probability
is ”How surprised should we be?” How surprising is

it, to use this example,
that two 70-year-old men in the same town should die

within two hours of each
other? Certainly not common, but not unimaginable. But

the fact that they were
brothers would seem to make the odds more astronomical.

This, however, is a superfluous
fact. What is significant in their case is that

two older men were riding
bicycles along a busy highway in a snowstorm, which

greatly increases the probability
that they would be hit by trucks.

Statisticians like Efron
emphasize that when something striking happens, it only

incidentally happens to
us. When the numbers are large enough, and the

distracting details are
removed, the chance of anything is fairly high. Imagine

a meadow, he says, and then
imagine placing your finger on a blade of grass. The

chance of choosing exactly
that blade of grass would be one in a million or even

higher, but because it is
a certainty that you will choose a blade of grass, the

odds of one particular one
being chosen are no more or less than the one to

either side.

Robert J. Tibshirani, a statistician
at Stanford University who proved that it

was probably not coincidence
that accident rates increase when people

simultaneously drive and
talk on a cellphone, leading some states to ban the

practice, uses the example
of a hand of poker. ”The chance of getting a royal

flush is very low,” he
says, ”and if you were to get a royal flush, you would

be surprised. But the chance
of any hand in poker is low. You just don’t notice

when you get all the others;
you notice when you get the royal flush.”

When these professors talk,
they do so slowly, aware that what they are saying

is deeply counterintuitive.
No sooner have they finished explaining that the

world is huge and that any
number of unlikely things are likely to happen than

they shift gears and explain
that the world is also quite small, which explains

an entire other type of
coincidence. One relatively simple example of this is

”the birthday problem.”
There are as many as 366 days in a year (accounting

for leap years), and so
you would have to assemble 367 people in a room to

absolutely guarantee that
two of them have the same birthday. But how many

people would you need in
that room to guarantee a 50 percent chance of at least

one birthday match?

Intuitively, you assume that
the answer should be a relatively large number. And

in fact, most people’s first
guess is 183, half of 366. But the actual answer is

23. In Paulos’s book, he
explains the math this way: ”[T]he number of ways in

which five dates can be
chosen (allowing for repetitions) is (365 x 365 x 365 x

365 x 365). Of all these
3655 ways, however, only (365 x 364 x 363 x 362 x 361)

are such that no two of
the dates are the same; any of the 365 days can be

chosen first, any of the
remaining 364 can be chosen second and so on. Thus, by

dividing this latter product
(365 x 364 x 363 x 362 x 361) by 3655, we get the

probability that five persons
chosen at random will have no birthday in common.

Now, if we subtract this
probability from 1 (or from 100 percent if we’re

dealing with percentages),
we get the complementary probability that at least

two of the five people do
have a birthday in common. A similar calculation using

23 rather than 5 yields
1/2, or 50 percent, as the probability that at least 2

of 23 people will have a
common birthday.”

Got that?

Using similar math, you can
calculate that if you want even odds of finding two

people born within one day
of each other, you only need 14 people, and if you

are looking for birthdays
a week apart, the magic number is seven.

(Incidentally, if you are
looking for an even chance that someone in the room

will have your exact birthday,
you will need 253 people.) And yet despite

numbers like these, we are
constantly surprised when we meet a stranger with

whom we share a birth date
or a hometown or a middle name. We are amazed by the

overlap — and we conveniently
ignore the countless things we do not have in



Which brings us to the death
of Benito Que, who was not, despite reports to the

contrary, actually a microbiologist.
He was a researcher in a lab at the

University of Miami Sylvester
Cancer Center, where he was testing various agents

as potential cancer drugs.
He never worked with anthrax or any infectious

disease, according to Dr.
Bach Ardalan, a professor of medicine at the

University of Miami and
Que’s boss for the past three years. ”There is no truth

to the talk that Benito
was doing anything related to microbiology,” Ardalan

says. ”He certainly wasn’t
doing any sensitive kind of work that anyone would

want to hurt him for.”

But those facts got lost
amid the confusion — and the prevalence of very

distracting details — in
the days after he died. So did the fact that he had

hypertension. On the afternoon
of Monday, Nov. 19, Que attended a late-afternoon

lab meeting, and as it ended,
he mentioned that he hadn’t been feeling well. A

nurse took Que’s blood pressure,
which was 190/110. ”I wanted to admit him” to

the hospital, Ardalan says,
but Que insisted on going home.

Que had the habit of parking
his car on Northwest 10th Avenue, a side street

that Ardalan describes as
being ”beyond the area considered to be safe.” His

spot that day was in front
of a house where a young boy was playing outside.

Four youths approached Que
as he neared his car, the boy later told the police,

and there might have been
some baseball bats involved. When the police arrived,

they found Que unconscious.
His briefcase was at his side, but his wallet was

gone. His car was eventually
found abandoned several miles from the scene. He

was taken to the hospital,
the same one at which he worked, where he spent more

than a week in a coma before
dying without ever regaining consciousness.

The mystery, limited to small
items in local Florida papers at first, was ”What

killed Benito Que?” Could
it have been the mugging? A CAT scan showed no signs

of bony fracture. In fact,
there were no scrapes or bruises or other physical

signs of assault. Perhaps
he died of a stroke? His brain scan did show a ”huge

intracranial bleed,” Ardalan
says, which would have explained his earlier

headache, and his high blood
pressure would have made a stroke likely.

In other words, this man
just happened to be mugged when he was a stroke waiting

to be triggered. That is
a jarring coincidence, to be sure. But it is not one

that the world was likely
to have noticed if Don Wiley had not up and


on C. Wiley was a microbiologist.
He did some work with anthrax, and a lot of

work with H.I.V., and he
was also quite familiar with Ebola, smallpox, herpes

and influenza. At 57, he
was the father of four children and a professor of

biochemistry and biophysics
in the department of molecular and cellular biology

at Harvard.

On Nov. 15, four days before
the attack on Benito Que, Wiley was in Memphis to

visit his father and to
attend the annual meeting of the scientific advisory

board of St. Jude’s Research
Hospital, of which he was a member. At midnight, he

was seen leaving a banquet
at the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. Friends and

colleagues say he had a
little to drink but did not appear impaired, and they

remember him as being in
a fine mood, looking forward to seeing his wife and

children, who were about
to join him for a short vacation.

Wiley’s father lives in a
Memphis suburb, and that is where Wiley should have

been headed after the banquet.
Instead, his car was found facing in the opposite

direction on the Hernando
DeSoto Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River at

the border of Tennessee
and Arkansas. When the police found the car at 4 a.m.,

it was unlocked, the keys
were in the ignition and the gas tank was full. There

was a scrape of yellow paint
on the driver’s side, which appeared to come from a

construction sign on the
bridge, and a right hubcap was missing on the passenger

side, where the wheel rims
were also scraped. There was no sign, however, of Don


The police trawled the muddy
Mississippi, but they didn’t really expect to find

him. Currents run fast at
that part of the river, and a body would be quickly

swept away. At the start
of the search, they thought he might have committed

suicide; others had jumped
from the DeSoto Bridge over the years. Detectives

searched Wiley’s financial
records, his family relationships, his scientific

research — anything for
a hint that the man might have had cause to take his

own life.

Finding nothing, the investigation
turned medical. Wiley, they learned, had a

seizure disorder that he
had hidden from all but family and close friends. He

had a history of two or
three major episodes a year, his wife told

investigators, and the condition
was made worse when he was under stress or the

influence of alcohol. Had
Wiley, who could well have been tired, disoriented by

bridge construction and
under the influence of a few drinks, had a seizure that

sent him over the side of
the bridge?

That was the theory the police
spoke of in public, but they were also

considering something else.
The week that Wiley disappeared coincided with the

peak of anthrax fear throughout
the country. Tainted letters appeared the month

before at the Senate and
the House of Representatives. Two weeks earlier, a New

York City hospital worker
died of inhaled anthrax. Memphis was not untouched by

the scare; a federal judge
and two area congressmen each received hoax letters.

Could it be mere chance
that this particular scientist, who had profound

knowledge of these microbes,
had disappeared at this time?

”The circumstances were
peculiar,” says George Bolds, a spokesman for the

Memphis bureau of the F.B.I.,
which was called in to assist. ”There were

questions that had to be
asked. Could he have been kidnapped because his

scientific abilities would
have made him capable of creating anthrax? Or maybe

he’d had some involvement
in the mailing of the anthrax, and he’d disappeared to

cover his tracks? Did his
co-conspirators grab him and kill him?

”We were in new territory,”
Bolds continued. ”Just because something is

conceivable doesn’t mean
it’s actually happened, but at the same time, just

because it’s never happened
before doesn’t mean it can’t happen. People’s ideas

of what is possible definitely
changed on Sept. 11. People feel less secure and

less safe. I’m not sure
that they’re at greater risk than they were before.

Maybe they’re just more
aware of the risk they are actually at.”

As a species, we appear to
be biologically programmed to see patterns and

conspiracies, and this tendency
increases when we sense that we’re in danger.

”We are hard-wired to overreact
to coincidences,” says Persi Diaconis. ”It

goes back to primitive man.
You look in the bush, it looks like stripes, you’d

better get out of there
before you determine the odds that you’re looking at a

tiger. The cost of being
flattened by the tiger is high. Right now, people are

noticing any kind of odd
behavior and being nervous about it.”

Adds John Allen Paulos: ”Human
beings are pattern-seeking animals. It might

just be part of our biology
that conspires to make coincidences more meaningful

than they really are. Look
at the natural world of rocks and plants and rivers:

it doesn’t offer much evidence
for superfluous coincidences, but primitive man

had to be alert to all anomalies
and respond to them as if they were real.”

For decades, all academic
talk of coincidence has been in the context of the

mathematical. New work by
scientists like Joshua B. Tenenbaum, an assistant

professor in the department
of brain and cognitive sciences at M.I.T., is

bringing coincidence into
the realm of human cognition. Finding connections is

not only the way we react
to the extraordinary, Tenenbaum postulates, but also

the way we make sense of
our ordinary world. ”Coincidences are a window into

how we learn about things,”
he says. ”They show us how minds derive richly

textured knowledge from
limited situations.”

To put it another way, our
reaction to coincidence shows how our brains fill in

the factual blanks. In an
optical illusion, he explains, our brain fills the

gaps, and although people
take it for granted that seeing is believing, optical

illusions prove that’s not
true. ”Illusions also prove that our brain is

capable of imposing structure
on the world,” he says. ”One of the things our

brain is designed to do
is infer the causal structure of the world from limited


If not for this ability,
he says, a child could not learn to speak. A child sees

a conspiracy, he says, in
that others around him are obviously communicating and

it is up to the child to
decode the method. But these same mechanisms can

misfire, he warns. They
were well suited to a time of cavemen and tigers and can

be overloaded in our highly
complex world. ”It’s why we have the urge to work

everything into one big
grand scheme,” he says. ”We do like to weave things


”But have we evolved
into fundamentally rational or fundamentally irrational

creatures? That is one
of the central questions.”


We pride ourselves on being
independent and original, and yet our reactions to

nearly everything can be
plotted along a predictable spectrum. When the grid is

coincidences, one end of
the scale is for those who believe that these are

entertaining events with
no meaning; at the other end are those who believe that

coincidence is never an

The view of coincidence as
fate has lately become something of a minitrend in

the New Age section of bookstores.
Among the more popular authors is SQuire

Rushnell (who, in the interest
of marketing, spells his first name with a

capital Q). Rushnell spent
20 years producing such television programs as ”Good

Morning America” and ”Schoolhouse
Rock.” His fascination with coincidence

began when he learned that
both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same

July 4, 50 years after the
ratification of the Declaration of Independence.

”That stuck in my craw,”
Rushnell says, ”and I couldn’t stop wondering what

that means.” And so Rushnell
wrote ”When God Winks: How the Power of

Coincidence Guides Your
Life.” The book was published by a small press shortly

before Sept. 11 and sold
well without much publicity. It will be rereleased with

great fanfare by Simon &

Schuster next month. Its message, Rushnell says, is

that ”coincidences are
signposts along your universal pathway. They are hints

that you are going in the
right direction or that you should change course. It’s

like your grandmother sitting
across the Thanksgiving table from you and giving

you a wink. What does that
wink mean? ‘I’m here, I love you, stay the course.”’

During my interview with
Rushnell, I told him the following story: On a frigid

December night many years
ago, a friend dragged me out of my warm apartment,

where I planned to spend
the evening in my bathrobe nursing a cold. I had to

come with her to the movies,
she said, because she had made plans with a pal

from her office, and he
was bringing a friend for me to meet. Translation: I was

expected to show up for
a last-minute blind date. For some reason, I agreed to

go, knocking back a decongestant
as I left home. We arrived at the theater to

find that the friend who
was supposed to be my ”date” had canceled, but not to

worry, another friend had
been corralled as a replacement. The replacement and I

both fell asleep in the
movie (I was sedated by cold medicine; he was a medical

resident who had been awake
for 36 hours), but four months later we were

engaged, and we have been
married for nearly 15 years.

Rushnell was enthralled by
this tale, particularly by the mystical force that

seemed to have nudged me
out the door when I really wanted to stay home and

watch ”The Golden Girls.”
I know that those on the other end of the spectrum

— the scientists and mathematicians
— would have offered several overlapping

explanations of why it was

There are, of course, the
laws of big numbers and small numbers — the fact that

the world is simultaneously
so large that anything can happen and so small that

weird things seem to happen
all the time. Add to that the work of the late Amos

Tversky, a giant in the
field of coincidence theory, who once described his role

in this world as ”debugging
human intuition.” Among other things, Tversky

disproved the ”hot hand”
theory of basketball, the belief that a player who

has made his last few baskets
will more likely than not make his next. After

examining thousands of shots
by the Philadelphia 76ers, he proved that the odds

of a successful shot cannot
be predicted by the shots that came before.

Tversky similarly proved
that arthritis sufferers cannot actually predict the

weather and are not in more
pain when there’s a storm brewing, a belief that

began with the ancient Greeks.
He followed 18 patients for 15 months, keeping

detailed records of their
reports of pain and joint swelling and matching them

with constantly updated
weather reports. There was no pattern, he concluded,

though he also conceded
that his data would not change many people’s beliefs.

We believe in such things
as hot hands and arthritic forecasting and predestined

blind dates because we notice
only the winning streaks, only the chance meetings

that lead to romance, only
the days that Grandma’s hands ache before it rains.

”We forget all the times
that nothing happens,” says Ruma Falk, a professor

emeritus of psychology at
the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who studied years

ago with Tversky. ”Dreams
are another example,” Falk says. ”We dream a lot.

Every night and every morning.
But it sometimes happens that the next day

something reminds you of
that dream. Then you think it was a premonition.”

Falk’s work is focused on
the question of why we are so entranced by coincidence

in the first place. Her
research itself began with a coincidence. She was on

sabbatical in New York from
her native Israel, and on the night before Rosh

Hashana she happened to
meet a friend from Jerusalem on a Manhattan street

corner. She and the friend
stood on that corner and marveled at the coincidence.

What is the probability
of this happening? she remembers wondering. What did

this mean?

”How stupid we were,” Falk
says now, ”to be so surprised. We related to all

the details that had converged
to create that moment. But the real question was

what was the probability
that at some time in some place I would meet one of my

circle of friends? And when
I told this story to others at work, they encoded

the events as two Israelis
meeting in New York, something that happens all the


Why was her experience so
resonant for her, Falk asked herself, but not for

those around her? One of
the many experiments she has conducted since then

proceeded as follows: she
visited several large university classes, with a total

of 200 students, and asked
each student to write his or her birth date on a

card. She then quietly sorted
the cards and found the handful of birthdays that

students had in common.
Falk wrote those dates on the blackboard. April 10, for

instance, Nov. 8, Dec. 16.
She then handed out a second card and asked all the

students to use a scale
to rate how surprised they were by these coincidences.

The cards were numbered,
so Falk could determine which answers came from

respondents who found their
own birth date written on the board. Those in that

subgroup were consistently
more surprised by the coincidence than the rest of

the students. ”It shows
the stupid power of personal involvement,” Falk says.

The more personal the event,
the more meaning we give it, which is why I am

quite taken with my story
of meeting my husband (because it is a pivotal moment

in my life), and why SQuire
Rushnell is also taken with it (because it fits into

the theme of his book),
but also why Falk is not impressed at all. She likes her

own story of the chance
meeting on a corner better than my story, while I think

her story is a yawn.

The fact that personal attachment
adds significance to an event is the reason we

tend to react so strongly
to the coincidences surrounding Sept. 11. In a deep

and lasting way, that tragedy
feels as if it happened to us all.

Falk’s findings also shed
light on the countless times that pockets of the

general public find themselves
at odds with authorities and statisticians. Her

results might explain, for
instance, why lupus patients are certain their breast

implants are the reason
for their illness, despite the fact that epidemiologists

conclude there is no link,
or why parents of autistic children are resolute in

their belief that childhood
immunizations or environmental toxins or a host of

other suspected pathogens
are the cause, even though experts are skeptical. They

might also explain the outrage
of all the patients who are certain they live in

a cancer cluster, but who
have been told otherwise by researchers.

Let’s be clear: this does
not mean that conspiracies do not sometimes exist or

that the environment never
causes clusters of death. And just as statistics are often

used to show us that we
should not be surprised, they can also prove what we

suspect, that something
is wrong out there.

”The fact that so many suspected
cancer clusters have turned out to be

statistically insupportable
does not mean the energy we spent looking for them

has been wasted,” says
Dr. James M. Robins, a professor of epidemiology and

biostatistics at Harvard
and an expert on cancer clusters. ”You’re never going

to find the real ones if
you don’t look at all the ones that don’t turn out to

be real ones.”

Most often, though, coincidence
is a sort of Rorschach test. We look into it and

find what we already believe.
”It’s like an archer shooting an arrow and then

drawing a circle around
it,” Falk says. ”We give it meaning because it does

mean something — to us.”

Vladimir Pasechnik was 64
when he died. His early career was spent in the Soviet

Union working at Biopreparat,
the site of that country’s biological weapons

program. He defected in
1989 and spilled what he knew to the British, revealing

for the first time the immense
scale of Soviet work with anthrax, plague,

tularemia and smallpox.

For the next 10 years, he
worked at the Center for Applied Microbiology and

Research, part of Britain’s
Department of Health. Two years ago, he left to form

Regma Biotechnologies, whose
goal was to develop treatment for tuberculosis and

other infectious disease.
In the weeks before he died, Pasechnik had reportedly

consulted with authorities
about the growing anthrax scare. Despite all these

intriguing details, there
is nothing to suggest that his death was caused by

anything other than a stroke.

Robert Schwartz’s death,
while far more dramatic and bizarre, also appears to

have nothing to do with
the fact that he was an expert on DNA sequencing and

analysis. On Dec. 10 he
was found dead on the kitchen floor of his isolated

log-and-fieldstone farmhouse
near Leesburg, Va., where he had lived alone since

losing his wife to cancer
four years ago and his children to college. Schwartz

had been stabbed to death
with a two-foot-long sword, and his killer had carved

an X on the back of his

Three friends of Schwartz’s
college-age daughter were soon arrested for what the

prosecutor called a ”planned
assassination”; two of the trials for

first-degree murder are
scheduled for this month. A few weeks later, police

arrested the daughter as
well. One suspect has a history of mental illness, and

their written statements
to police talk of devil worship and revenge. There is

no talk, however, of microbiology.

On the same day that Schwartz
died, Set Van Nguyen, 44, was found dead in an

air-locked storage chamber
at the Australian Commonwealth’s Scientific and

Industrial Research Organization’s
animal diseases facility in Geelong. A

months-long internal investigation
concluded that a string of equipment failures

had allowed nitrogen to
build up in the room, causing Nguyen to suffocate.

Although the center itself
dealt with microbes like mousepox, which is similar

to smallpox, Nguyen himself
did not. ”Nguyen was in no way involved in research

into mousepox,” says Stephen
Prowse, who was the acting director of the

Australian lab during the
investigation. ”He was a valued member of the

laboratory’s technical support
staff and not a research scientist.”

Word of all these deaths
(though not the specific details) found its way to Ian

Gurney, a British writer.
Gurney is the author of ”The Cassandra Prophecy:

Armageddon Approaches,”
a book that uses clues from the Bible to calculate that

Judgment Day will occur
in or about the year 2023. He is currently researching

his second book, which is
in part about the threat of nuclear and biological

weapons, and after Sept.
11 he entered a news alert request into Yahoo, asking

to be notified whenever
there was news with the key word ”microbiologist.”

First Que, then Wiley, then
Pasechnik, Schwartz and Nguyen popped up on Gurney’s

computer. ”I’m not a conspiracy
theorist,” says the man who has predicted the

end of the world, ”but
it certainly did look suspicious.” Gurney compiled what

he had learned from these
scattered accounts into an article that

he sent to a number of Web
sites, including Rense.com, which tracks U.F.O.

sightings worldwide. ”Over
the past few weeks,” Gurney wrote, ”several

world-acclaimed scientific
researchers specializing in infectious diseases and

biological agents such as
anthrax, as well as DNA sequencing, have been found

dead or have gone missing.”

The article went on to call
Benito Que, the cancer lab technician, ”a cell

biologist working on infectious
diseases like H.I.V.,” and said that he had

been attacked by four men
with a baseball bat but did not mention that he

suffered from high blood
pressure. It then described the disappearance of Wiley

without mentioning his seizure
disorder and the death of Pasechnik without

saying that he had suffered
a stroke. It gave the grisly details of Schwartz’s

murder, but said nothing
of the arrests of his daughter’s friends. Nguyen, in

turn, was described as ”a
skilled microbiologist,” and it was noted that he

shared a last name with
Kathy Nguyen, the 61-year-old hospital worker who just

happened to be the one New
Yorker to die of anthrax.

Of course, there have always
been rumors based on skewed historical fact.

Recall, for example, the
list of coincidences that supposedly linked the deaths

of Presidents Lincoln and
Kennedy. It goes, in part, like this: The two men were

elected 100 years apart;
their assassins were born 100 years apart (in fact, 101

years apart); they were
both succeeded by men named Johnson; and the two

Johnsons were born 100 years
apart. Their names each contain seven letters;

their successors’ names
each contain 13 letters; and their assassins’ names each

contain 15 letters. Lincoln
was shot in a theater and his assassin ran to a

warehouse, while Kennedy
was shot from a warehouse and his assassin ran to a

theater. Lincoln, or so
the story goes, had a secretary named Kennedy who warned

him not to go to the theater
the night he was killed (for the record, Lincoln’s

White House secretaries
were named John Nicolay and John Hay, and Lincoln

regularly rejected warnings
not to attend public events out of fear for his

safety, including his own
inauguration); Kennedy, in turn, had a secretary named

Lincoln (true, Evelyn Lincoln)
who warned him not to go to Dallas (he, too, was

regularly warned not to
go places, including San Antonio the day before his trip

to Dallas).

I first read about these
connections five years after the Kennedy assassination,

when I was 8, which says
something about how conspiracy theory speaks to the

child in all of us. But
it also says something about the technology of the time.

The numerological coincidences
from the World Trade Center that I mentioned at

the start of this article
made their way onto my computer screen by Sept. 15,

from a friend of a friend
of a friend of an acquaintance, ad infinitum and ad


Professor Robins of Harvard
points out that ”the Web has changed the scale of

these things.” Had there
been a string of dead scientists back in 1992 rather

than 2002, he says, it is
possible that no one would have ever known. ”Back

then, you would not have
had the technical ability to gather all these bits and

pieces of information, while
today you’d be able to pull it off. It’s well known

that if you take a lot of
random noise, you can find chance patterns in it, and

the Net makes it easier
to collect random noise.”

The Gurney article traveled
from one Web site to the next and caught the

attention of Paul Sieveking,
a co-editor of Fortean Times, a magazine that

describes itself as ”the
Journal of Strange Phenomena.”

”People send me stuff all
the time,” Sieveking says. ”This was really

interesting.” Wearing his
second hat as a columnist for the The Sunday

Telegraph in London, he
wrote a column on the subject for that paper titled

”Strange but True — The
Deadly Curse of the Bioresearchers.” His version

began with the link between
the two Nguyens and concluded, ”It is possible that

nothing connects this string
of events, but . . . it offers ample fodder for the

conspiracy theorist or thriller

Commenting on the story months
later, Sieveking says: ”It’s probably just a

random clumping, but it
just happens to look significant. We’re all natural

storytellers, and conspiracy
theorists are just frustrated novelists. We like to

make up a good story out
of random facts.”

Over the months, Gurney added
names to his list and continued to send it to

virtual and actual publications
around the U.S. Mainstream newspapers started

taking up the story, including
an alternative weekly in Memphis, where interest

in the Wiley case was particularly
strong, and most recently The Toronto Globe

and Mail. The tally of ”microbiologists”
is now at 11, give or take, depending

on the story you read. In
addition to the men already discussed, the names that

appear most often are these:
Victor Korshunov, a Russian expert in intestinal

bacteria, who was bashed
over the head near his home in Moscow; Ian Langford, a

British expert in environmental
risk and disease, who was found dead in his home

near Norwich, England, naked
from the waist down and wedged under a chair; Tanya

Holzmayer, who worked as
a microbiologist near San Jose and was shot seven times

by a former colleague when
she opened the door to a pizza delivery man; David

Wynn-Williams, who studied
microbes in the Antarctic and was hit by a car while

jogging near his home in
Cambridge, England; and Steven Mostow, an expert in

influenza, who died when
the plane he was piloting crashed near Denver.

The stories have also made
their way into the e-mail in-boxes of countless

microbiologists. Janet Shoemaker,
director of public and scientific affairs for

the American Society for
Microbiology, heard the tales and points out that her

organization alone has 41,000
members, meaning that the deaths of 11 worldwide,

most of whom were not technically
microbiologists at all, is not statistically

surprising. ”We’re saddened
by anyone’s death,” she says. ”But this is just a

coincidence. In another
political climate I don’t think anyone would have


Ken Alibek heard them, too,
and dismissed them. Alibek is one of the country’s

best-known microbiologists.
He was the No. 2 man at Biopreparrat (where Victor

Pasechnik also worked) before
he defected and now works with the U.S. government

seeking antidotes for the
very weapons he developed. Those who have died, he

says, did not really know
anything about biological weapons, and if there were a

conspiracy to kill scientists
with such knowledge, he would be dead. ”I

considered all this a little
artificial, because a number of them couldn’t have

been considered B.W. experts,”
he says with a hint of disdain. ”I got an

e-mail from Pasechnik before
he died, and he was working on a field completely

different from this. People
say to me, ‘Ken, you could be a target,’ but if you

start thinking about this,
then your life is over. I’m not saying I’m not

worried, but I’m not paying
much attention. I’m opening my mail as usual. If I

see something suspicious,
I know what to do.”

Others are not quite as sanguine.
Phyllis Della-Latta is the director of

clinical microbiology services
at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Medical

Center. She found an article
on the deaths circulating in the most erudite place

— an Internet discussion
group of directors of clinical microbiology labs

around the world. These
are the people who, when a patient develops suspicious

symptoms, are brought in
to rule out things like anthrax.

Della-Latta, whom I know
from past medical reporting, forwarded the article to

me with a note: ”See attached.
FYI. Should I be concerned??? I’m off on a

business trip to Italy tomorrow
& next week. If I don’t return, write my


She now says she doesn’t
really believe there is any connection between the

deaths. ”It’s probably
only coincidence,” she says, then adds: ”But if we

traced back a lot of things
that we once dismissed as coincidence — foreigners

taking flying lessons —
we would have found they weren’t coincidence at all.

You become paranoid. You
have to be.”

Don Wiley’s body was finally
found on Dec. 20, near Vidalia, La., about 300

miles south of where he

The Memphis medical examiner,
O.C. Smith, concluded that yellow paint marks on

Wiley’s car suggest that
he hit a construction sign on the Hernando DeSoto

Bridge, as does the fact
that a hubcap was missing from the right front tire.

Smith’s theory is that heavy
truck traffic on the bridge can set off wind gusts

and create ”roadway bounce,”
which might have been enough to cause Wiley to

lose his balance after getting
out of the car to inspect the scrapes. He was

6-foot-3, and the bridge
railing would have only come up to mid-thigh.

”If Dr. Wiley were on the
curb trying to assess damage to his car, all of these

factors may have played
a role in his going over the rail,” Smith said when he

issued his report. Bone
fractures found on the body support this theory. Wiley

suffered fractures to his
neck and spine, and his chest was crushed, injuries

that are consistent with
Wiley’s hitting a support beam before he landed in the


The Wiley family considers
this case closed. ”These kinds of theories are

something that’s always
there,” says Wiley’s wife, Katrin Valgeirsdottir, who

has heard all the rumors.
”People who want to believe it will believe it, and

there’s nothing anyone can

The Memphis Police also consider
the case closed, and the local office of the

F.B.I. has turned its attention
to other odd happenings. The talk of Memphis at

the moment is the bizarre
ambush of the city’s coroner last month. He was

wrapped in barbed wire and
left lying in a stairwell of the medical examiner’s

building with a live bomb
strapped to his chest.

Coincidentally, that coroner,
O.C. Smith, was also the coroner who did the

much-awaited, somewhat controversial
autopsy on Don Wiley.

What are the odds of that?

Categories: Uncategorized

About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock