In 1996, my son and I flew from Glens Falls, N.Y., (via Albany, N.Y., and Newark, N.J.) to visit my daughter, a college student doing a semester abroad in Bath, England. We flew in to Heathrow and took a train to Bath. At the end of our visit, we spent a couple of nights in London.
The day before our visit there had been an IRA bombing on a London bus, so security was very tight. Because of a suspicious package, and announcement was made that the tube would not stop at our intended station of Covent Garden, so we got off at the stop before and started walking in what I hoped was the correct direction to Covent Garden.
As we stopped on a traffic island in the middle of a street, I asked a man who also was on the island if he could direct me to Covent Garden. “Sorry,” he drawled, “but I’m from Texas, and I’m lost, too.” We went our separate ways.
Two days later my son and I were in line at Gatwick airport. (Yes, we flew IN to Heathrow and OUT from Gatwick; no idea why, but the tickets were a gift from my brother, who’d used his frequent flyer miles, so I was not about to question it.) A man stood in line behind us, and it was the Texan we’d encountered on a traffic island somewhere near Covent Garden in London! We exchanged greetings, made note of the unusual coincidence, and again went our separate ways. (And in case you’re wondering, I never saw him again.)
I’ve often wondered what were the odds of lost U.S. citizens from different parts of the country meeting for the first time on a London traffic island, then encountering one another again in line at the airport.
Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 261. Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society.
Unfortunately, I have no answers for this one except to say that low-odds events must happen occasionally. This story actually reminds me of one of my own.
We (my husband, our two boys, and my parents) were flying from our home in Los Angeles to Vancouver the day before our ship sailed to Alaska. Our boys were (and still are) both constantly drawing and one of them was doing so while the plane was boarding. A man noticed, complimented our son’s work, and offered to draw something for him. In a few minutes my son had a personalized cartoon of Homer and Bart Simpson, drawn by a man who had worked as an artist and director for the show for many years.
The next day we saw the man and his family as we were boarding our cruise. He and his wife had two boys of their own, a bit younger than ours, and were booked on the same cruise and post-cruise activities. As you can imagine, we were able to spend some time together and became friends.
The odds are good that at least one family on a flight from LA to Vancouver is scheduled to board a cruise ship the next day, but the odds that two families who don’t know each other are scheduled to board the same ship AND interact are likely pretty small, although not nearly as small as running into someone in an airport that you saw on a traffic island days before in a highly populated city.