Monday, 30 January 2017

How a crystallographer is responsible for my marriage

A crystallographer (not my tutor)
Image from Wikipedia
I was giving a talk at Bristol University last Wednesday about randomness and probability, based on my book Dice World. Following it, I got an email asking if I was really suggesting that everything that happens to us is just random, even, for instance, meeting someone and falling in love?

My response was that there is a mix of chance and choice. Chance is behind a meeting, but each party in such an occurrence then makes a series of decisions - choices - that influence the outcome. (You can argue whether those decisions are themselves pre-determined or if there really is free will, but I that's getting too philosophical for me.)

I gave my questioner the example that I would not have met, fallen in love with and married my wife if my tutor at university had not been a crystallographer.

When I started my Natural Sciences course at Cambridge I was expected to take four subjects. Three were pretty obvious - maths, physics and chemistry. But for the fourth I really wanted to do experimental psychology, as it sounded fascinating. But then I had a meeting with my tutor who, frankly, bullied me into taking crystalline state as my fourth topic. I hated the subject and dropped it as quickly as I could.

However, in an alternative universe where he had not interfered, I would have taken experimental psychology. With what I know of myself now, I believe I would have made that my specialist topic for the third year. And that means my career path would have been totally different. I wouldn't have gone on to do a Masters in operational research. As a result I wouldn't have got a job at British Airways. So I wouldn't have ended up living in a town called Langley, on the outskirts of Slough, which was handy for my place of work. And that was where I met my future wife.

I want to stress again that I'm not arguing for a life where everything is totally ruled by chance. But if we fail to acknowledge how much chance, randomness, luck - whatever you want to call it - sets up the starting position from which we have to make our decisions - we are living in a fantasy world.

Find out more about randomness, probability and their influences on our lives in  Dice World.

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