Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidences – Joseph Mazur


Whether surprising, creepy, or downright weird, we all love to hear about coincidences, but just how usual are these seemingly uncanny events that so often creep into our daily lives? In this new release from Oneworld Publications Joseph Mazur aims to find out by delving into the mathematics behind coincidence.

Picture this: you are sitting in a café in Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete when you hear a familiar laugh at a table nearby. You look over and lock eyes with your own brother. You had no idea he would be there, and he is just as surprised to see you. Of all the places in the entire world, what are the chances that you two have ended up in the same place, at the same time, seemingly unbeknownst to one another? It seems hugely unlikely, and yet this is exactly what happened to author – and coincidence enthusiast – Joseph Mazur, back in 1968. Uncanny isn’t it?

This story is just the kind of thing the average mind laps up with delight. Coincidences make magnificent stories, be it a crazy tale of pure luck that unfurled just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, a thrilling near miss, or a series of hugely unfortunate events. Tell a crowd a story of coincidence and they will response with surprise and wonder. Yet far from being unusual, coincidences are actually fairly commonplace. In fact, even the finest coincidence can be explained as mathematically predictable.

Of course, coincidences are not solely of the ‘uncanny’ variety. On any given day, we encounter a stunning variety of factors that dictate the path our lives will follow, and a five second change in routine could see you meet the love of your life, or get crushed to death by a falling flowerpot. The ‘what ifs’ of life fill everyone’s existence, with even the most logical mind susceptible to obsessing over the smallest factor which could hold the key to changing the course of history. You could spend your life trying to understand coincidences that govern life, but as Mazur’s beloved Uncle Herman once put it: “Everything that happens just happens because everything in the world just happened.”

In Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidence, author Joseph Mazur attempts to demystify the mathematics that dictate coincidence, to show the reader that if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small, it is bound to happen to someone at some time. After all, in terms of population, the world is a really, somewhat inconceivably huge place.

Through a delightfully written collection of some of the seemingly strangest coincidences, we learn that it is possible for a person to win the lottery four times, fans of plum pudding move in similar circles, and, in the case of George Washington at least, dreams really do come true. Mazur combines stories of coincidence with practical mathematical methods of appraising the likelihood of events occurring, exploring the nature of coincidence frequency to explain why they happen, and more importantly, why we are still so surprised by them.

The key to understanding coincidences is in mathematics, but the author concedes that there could be an element of fate in any situation, some larger entity at work governing the coincidence that we encounter throughout our lives. After all, it sometimes feels good to believe that there is a grand plan governing that which we cannot explain, and no one wants to believe that the coming together of soulmates is dictated by maths. What’s more, when you write a book on coincidences, you notice more than ever, Mazur muses, after having accidentally vacuumed up page 2072 in his 2262 page dictionary. The very page he would later need to look up the word serendipity. Now what are the chances of that?

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Only Planet – Ed Gillespie

I wouldn’t call myself a climate enthusiast – mainly because I find the term itself a bit troubling – but low-carbon energy and sustainability are high up my list of work-related interests. As I find myself creeping towards middle age, I am increasingly concerned by the world we may be preparing for future generations.

Gillespie’s talk didn’t offer any earth-shattering revelations, but it was humbling and thought-provoking, serving to highlight just how terrifyingly unknown our path really is. Our future on Earth, Gillespie said, is “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” – no one can know what will happen to the world as temperatures increase. They are rising, though, despite what climate change denialists might say, and something needs to be done about it.

“Climate change will see a displacement of people that is going to be biblical.”

There are a whole host of factors contributing to changes taking place across the world, but rooted at the core of all of these is consumption. Analysis shows that consumer spending and GDP have almost doubled since 1970, while life satisfaction has stayed the same. We are, however, seeing a strange shift in spending habits in some cases, where people are encouraged to opt for low-carbon alternatives using the most bizarre and contradictory of methods. A perfect example is Tesco encouraging customers to buy low-energy lightbulbs in return for air miles – somewhat defies the point, don’t you think?

“Our approach to climate change is like turning up to an earthquake with a dustpan and brush.”

We are suffering, Gillespie proposed, from the so-called bystander effect, a strange situation where, when there are a lot of people involved in a particular problem, the average person just hopes that someone else will do something about it, rather than taking matters into their own hands. You’ve probably done it before – how much do you really think your own carbon footprint matters? It’s everyone’s problem, though, and it will take combined efforts to find a solution.

As an environmental entrepreneur, Gillespie has undoubtedly gone above and beyond what the average Joe could achieve in a lifetime. He founded sustainability firm Futerra and sits as a non-executive director for Zero Carbon Food. He is also a London Sustainable Development Commissioner, an investor in Foodtrade and has helped fund numerous eccentric and sustainable business models.

It’s a crazy amount of work, and no one is expecting everyone to commit their lives to combatting climate change, but the message is to do something, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. One of the easiest positive choices we can make in the fight against climate change is a choice to curb our own consumption. In fact, I think Gillespie’s most impressive feat, and indeed the one we can take the most inspiration from, is giving up flying.

In his talk at Savoy Place, Gillespie recounted what he saw as the hypocrisy in preaching climate change while still opting for the quick, easy method of travel that is flying. “I couldn’t justify it,” he said. “So I gave it up.”

Giving up flying doesn’t mean giving up travel, however.

In 2007, Gillespie embarked on an epic year-long round-the-world trip, opting for slow trains, cargo ships and body-filled buses over aviation. His first book, Only Planet, the story of this remarkable journey, was published by Wild Things Publishing in 2014.


A round-the-world trip without planes – how does that work? Obviously, after listening to this enlightening talk, and vowing to do more to reduce my carbon footprint, I had to find out for myself.

The book begins at the end, with Gillespie and his girlfriend Fiona on the last leg of their trip, playing table tennis with Vadim, an ex-heavyweight Ukrainian boxer, and the steward of the Horncap, the cargo ship that was their refuge above the oily black waters of the Sargasso Sea. Amid anecdotes spouted from mouths of cargo-ship cruisers from the bar side, Gillespie recounts his reasons for setting out on his extraordinary journey: to experience the voyage itself, not just the destination.

Forsaking planes and their associated destructive carbon emissions, we’d set out to rediscover the joy of travelling though the world, not just over it. We’d wanted to experience the intimate transition of landscape, culture, people and language, soak up the sights sounds and smells of the journey and not just bunny-hop around the globe in an aluminium sausage.

Over the next 300 pages, the reader is taken all the way from the Bay of Biscay, to Puerto Limon in Costa Rica, experiencing culture, practices and locals far removed from the blinding white cliffs of Dover. Gillespie is feasted upon by bed-bugs in Prague, drinks fermented yaks’ milk in Mongolia, and receives the gift of a large pink sausage from a Chinese gentleman upon the waves of the Bohai sea. Border arrests and drug searches do little to impede the travel – with little to no onward plan, what’s wrong with a little communication with the locals? However intrusive it may be.

This isn’t just a book about travel, though. The central running theme is that of sustainability. Throughout the journey, Gillespie delves into the philosophy of often slow, low-carbon travel by reconnecting with the communities in the countries he travels through. In just over a year, Gillespie and Fiona covered more than 40,000 miles and passed through 31 countries. They discovered the impact of over-consumption in the furthest corners of the earth, from the effect of the new, harsh winters on the nomadic people in the deserts of Mongolia, to the over-fishing of tuna in the South China Sea.

At its heart a book where the often-conflicting worlds of sustainability and travel meet, Only Planet serves to do more than whet the appetite of the wannabe traveller or so-called climate enthusiast. Liberally illustrated with dramatic photography and awash with the most hilarious of first-person anecdotes, the book shows just how far removed we have become from the traditions of community and experience, swept away in a sea of over-consumption and instant gratification. A truly inspirational and riveting read – with the occasional spelling mistake it has to be said – this book will likely change the way you look at travel, from both an ecological and spiritual point of view.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World – Greg Milner

GPS is changing the way we live our lives, with more people using satellite technology to find their way around, track daily workouts and even catch fictional creatures out in the wild. In this new publication from Granta, Greg Milner traces the history of GPS and uncovers how it came to conquer the world.

41gsabhQ9AL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgMost people reading this review will no doubt be doing so with their trusty mobile phone not too far away. Chances are that phone is also a smartphone equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities. Your phone works like as a GPS receiver, communicating with a network of satellites that orbit the Earth at fixed points, transmitting signals that carry time codes and geographical data. These satellites make it possible for you to pinpoint your exact position, speed and time anywhere on the planet.

Of course, this is nothing new – GPS technology has been around for decades, so much so that, for many of us, using Google Maps is almost second nature. In fact, GPS is more far reaching than you might realise; your phone can not only help give you directions, it can also pick up data from nearby businesses. Ever walked past a shop and had Google ‘ask’ you to submit some information? This is GPS at play, used for somewhat questionable data mining. You might be surprised to learn just how many aspects of life involve elements of GPS. In his new book, ‘Pinpoint’, Greg Milner traces GPS’s extraordinary history and paints a startling picture of a world saturated by its use.

First developed in the 1950s as a bomb-guidance system and one of the pinnacle technologies of the Cold War, GPS was made available for public use in 1983 and is one of the world’s most widely used technologies. Indeed, GPS goes much further than navigation and catching digital creatures with Pokémon Go. Information from GPS satellites helps to anticipate changes in global weather systems, predicts earthquakes and hurricanes, locates natural gas and oil and is becoming increasingly popular in overseeing agricultural production – the list goes on.

However, Milner warns, while GPS has opened up a whole host of new information about our environment and created opportunities across every sector, there are questions involving its effect on human behaviour. As a population, we could be finding ourselves too reliant on GPS. Milner points to the startling new phenomenon of ‘death by GPS’ – people who have been killed by blindly following the instruction of satellite navigation systems. Even more concerning are the explanations given by those who experienced a close call with GPS. “It kept saying it would navigate us to a road,” a group of Japanese tourists in Australia explained, after driving their car into the ocean. Research has suggested that reliance on GPS could actually rearrange the grey matter in our heads.

Milner takes these concerns further and explores the potential issues with widespread GPS use, not just by individuals, but by whole societies. A single GPS timing flaw, he suggests, could bring down the electricity grid, take over electronic devices and cause havoc in the world financial system. Take into account that such ‘flaws’ could just as easily be malicious as accidental, and you have a whole new problem on your hands.

‘Pinpoint’ unearths with surprising detail the history of GPS as a technology, from its conception during the Cold War, up to its position at the forefront of technology today. Milner goes back to basics, tracing the ways in which humans have understood and navigated their own physical space throughout time, and applying the theories to the development of advanced technological systems. This book offers a striking anthropological analysis of how we, as humans, understand the world around us.

This review was first published on in print for E&T magazine

Mars: Making Contact – Rod Pyle

With Nasa’s new lander, InSight, due to launch in 2018, and the Mars 2020 Rover set to touch down just two years later, all eyes are on Mars. Rod Pyle traces the history of the Red Planet in this stunning new publication from Carlton Publishing Group.

519q2nj3sl-_sx258_bo1204203200_The universe can be a pretty lonely place. What are we but a pale blue dot, orbiting an insignificant star, in one of any number of solar systems, in an unquantifiable amount of galaxies that make up the universe? For generations humankind has hoped to one day discover life beyond our world, to finally know that we are not alone in the universe. Of all the planets in our solar system, there is one which will forever encapsulate the human desire to discover alien life, that dull red dot flickering in the distant night’s sky – Mars, our, not-so-identical, twin sister.

For millennia, Mars has held a special place in the human psyche, fascinating explorers enamoured by its dull red appearance and unusual celestial motions across the night sky. In the past, the relative closeness of the Mars to our own home seemed to hold the promise of hardy plants, animals equipped to handle long cold winters, and a whole new world of secrets and history. Over the years, however, we’ve come to learn quite a lot about our distant neighbour, and the truth is far from appealing.

Multiple flybys, orbiters and landers throughout the years have awarded us a deeper understanding of our sister planet, and opened our eyes to the truth of that which once lay just beyond our grasps. The first fleeting images of Mars, awarded by the success of the Mariner 4 flyby, revealed a hostile frozen desert – similar to Earth in terms of geology and physics, but cold, dry and lacking in any kind of atmosphere that would allow for the development of life.

Mars: Making Contact traces the history of Mars here on Earth, as the lonely red sphere in the night’s sky evolved from an otherworld entity, to a place, and as the secrets of Mars continue to unfold. Author Rod Pyle reveals the many human interactions that have occurred with our sister planet, and lays out the hope of more to come, as we move towards the first human mission to the hostile red sands of Mars.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine

“People in a small town tend to do a lot of talking, even when they don’t know what they’re talking about. ” — Don Roff

A hilarious take on village politics at their very worst.

A Tunnel is Only a Hole on its Side – James Minter


James Minter was born in Oxfordshire, from whence he is said to draw much inspiration for his writing. Prior to writing fiction, Minter spent 35 years in the IT industry working on specialist literature, including training manuals. In 2009 Minter turned his mind to writing fiction, the experience of which he soon fell in love with. Five years on and he has become an award-winning author. His first book, The Hole Opportunity,was published in 2011 and formed the beginning of The Hole Trilogy. The book went on to be the Bronze Winner for Adult Fiction at the Wishing Shelf Book Awards in 2013. Minter’s second book, The Unexpected Consequences of Iron Overload, was published the following year, taking a humorous look at the medical condition Haemochromatosis and written to help raise awareness of the condition, from which Minter himself suffers. The second book in The Hole Trilogy, A Tunnel is Only a Hole on its Side, was published in 2013.

The Hole Trilogy follows the lives of the citizens of the small town of Harpsden. In A Tunnel is Only a Hole on its Side, Minter takes a look at the reaction of the town’s citizens when faced with the idea of change. Harpsden is in dire need of a bypass – the roads are so clogged that the traffic backs up right to the high street, making accessing Waitrose an absolute nightmare. When a letter arrives from the council to announce a proposed new bypass, which threatens to cut through the local golf course, the citizens of Harpsden are driven to distraction. The club’s members, including the captain Major Woods, are horrified by the proposal and take it upon themselves to redesign the route. Major Woods takes the opportunity to reignite a feud he has with ‘hole farmer’ Colin Griggs and proposes a route that will effectively wipe the Griggs’ farm off the map. Meanwhile, kindly Colin opts for an alternate route that will suit everyone – tunnelling under the golf course and constructing the tunnel himself, potentially winning the favour of Major Woods in the process. As with all small town politics, however, nothing is ever that simple.

When I started reading this book, Minter’s writing style immediately appealed to me. The text is very well written, accessible, and humorous. I had to do a little of my own research to begin with as I hadn’t had the opportunity to read the first book in the trilogy. I was a little confused by the concept of ‘hole farming’ and wasn’t familiar with the feud between Colin Griggs and Major Woods, but after a bit of surfing the web I soon set this straight and was able to enjoy the book for what it is, a really funny, light-hearted read.

My initial reaction to Minter’s work was that it reads like an English sitcom, an opinion which I maintained throughout. It really does feel as though you are watching an episode of Keeping up Appearances or One Foot in the Grave. I really liked Minter’s introduction of Colin Griggs (whose character I absolutely love, by the way – but more on that later). Colin is introduced as an aging farmer, whose thoughts are so plagued by the rumour of a new bypass that he is unable to sleep and decides to put pen to paper to help clear his head. The description of Colin, sneaking downstairs in the early hours of the morning, trying so hard to be quiet and ultimately stumbling aimlessly in the dark, is priceless:

‘Making his way downstairs, he remembered the third from the top produced a loud squeak. Stepping over it, he stumbled past the next two treads. In the dark, he’d misjudged the distance. He struggled to maintain his balance ricocheting off the walls like a pinball in an arcade machine.’

Another aspect of Minter’s writing I enjoyed was being able to see the characters thoughts through the use of the third person omniscient. This too, for me, added to the feel of the book being like a sitcom. An example which immediately comes to mind is Colin’s wife’s description of Colin coming in from the cold in the first chapter:

‘Dropping his smile he flopped back into his chair. The fly on his pyjama bottoms gaped. There was nothing to see. It must be cold out there, she thought.’

Minter is said to draw on his own knowledge of rural Oxfordshire as the inspiration for his characters. Hailing from a small town myself, I can definitely relate to Minter’s choice of characters and his description of village politics. Those involved in community interest groups can very often get far too carried away, especially if it is a heavily contested subject. This is evident with the characters in Minter’s book and none more so than Major Woods, who sees himself as being at ‘war’ with several other citizens of Harpsden and takes his role as head of the Golfer’s Against the New Bypass very, very seriously:

‘The Major felt his hackles rise. “Mr Flanagan, you’ve been invited here today as a guest, to report on proceedings only. This is not a public debate. Please keep your thoughts to yourself. If you’d listen and not interrupt, then as Mary said, you will learn. Now please be quiet. Questions will be allowed later.” The colour in his cheeks was reminiscent of a Macaques’ red bum.’

The Major in general is only too reminiscent of someone taking a role far too seriously. No doubt the bypass is an important subject, but the Major appears more than a little unhinged. I hope I don’t make any enemies by saying that from why I understand of small groups like this there is always a character such as the Major, who feels they can take the law into their own hands, Minter just does a rather fantastic and hilarious job of describing such an individual.

One final passage of praise for this book: I thought the characters were fantastic. Minter presents a really good mix of characters, including a fantastically posh and aging Lady of the Manor, a sultry seductress, as well as characters who appeal to a reader’s better nature, and others that are just downright infuriating. Major Woods is firmly rooted in that last category for me; I find the idea of such a man absolutely repugnant, which I think is what makes him such a great character. A friend of mine once told me of an aging army Major who would always sign his name ‘Major’ so and so, if there was a chance the person reading it might think they were better than him. I don’t know if such a man actually exists, but it is of him that I thought when reading about the self important, furious and somewhat ridiculous man that is Major Woods.

‘The persistent drone of the Mercedes horn alerted him to the Major’s arrival. Looking up he was taken aback to see him, eyes staring, mouth trembling, moustache twitching, face reddening, nostril flaring, only a few feet away from him.’

Needless to say, anybody who insists on being called Major outside of a barracks by close friends is not ok by me, but he does make for a rather amusing read.

On the other hand, I struggle to see how anyone could fail to warm to Colin Griggs. The man is so well meaning, while perhaps a little short sighted at times. I really took to Colin, finding his inability to use a computer an endearing and largely accurate description of many older people I know.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the book as a whole. Minter has created something very unique to him – it is different to anything I have read before. The only aspect of the book I struggled with slightly, and which I feel could perhaps use a bit more work, is the transition between settings and chapters. At times the text can read a bit like a script and it can get a little bit much, making it difficult to read too much in one sitting.

Overall, I found A Tunnel is Only a Hole on its Side to be a really light-hearted and entertaining look at village politics and rural living. I think Minter is undoubtedly unique in his writing style and has created something, which, while it may not be for everyone, will have a lot of people singing its praises. I would strongly recommend anyone give it a go, if only to experience something a little different.

Many thanks to James Minter for providing me with a free review copy of the book.