ON COINCIDENCE.

01 SEPTEMBER 2002: ON
COINCIDENCE.

From 11
August 2002 New York Times Sunday Magazine
:

The Odds of That

By LISA BELKIN

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
happen.”

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


impossible.”

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


common.

 

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


disappeared.

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


Wiley.

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


information.”

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


together.

”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
accident.

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
unremarkable.

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


time.”

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
neck.

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


nauseam.

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
writer.”

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


noticed.”

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


obituary.”

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
disappeared.

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


water.

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
say.”

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