Rolling coloured dice on wooden table

Book review: ‘A Series of Fortunate Events’ by Sean B Carroll

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An objective look at the part pure chance plays in our lives, and the mathematics behind it.

That humans should have a such a complex relationship with random chance is mostly a matter of brain biology, says Sean B Carroll in his latest book of popular science, ‘A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life and You’ (Princeton University Press, £18.99, ISBN 9780691201757). Borrowing his title in transparent homage from Lemony Snicket’s ‘Unfortunate Events’ polylogy (in which indifferent fate relentlessly conspires against the protagonists), Carroll sets about deconstructing what chance really is: why in our minds, when we lose a bet it’s down to bad luck, but when we win, this gets chalked up to an altogether different interpretation: such as the inevitability of probability mathematics, the robustness of our strategy, or even ‘fortunate events’.

This example illustrates one of the big problems with humans trying to understand chance, says Carroll. Important scientific phenomena that affect our lives and the world we live in – either at a planetary or molecular level – happen on a scale that is difficult for our minds to process. So we tend to become anthropocentric about it all. In other words, it’s in our nature to think that everything happens for a reason. But, Carroll reminds us, as the comedian said after randomly throwing a stranger down the stairs: “Tell me why I did that.”

The problem with coming to terms with the idea that our lives are driven by chance is that it “shatters long-held beliefs about humanity’s place and raises challenging questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives”. This is, by the author’s cheerful admission, a “really big idea” to cover in a relatively small book, especially when such ideas seem to meet with mixed fortunes when it comes to public reaction.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, he contends in one of the most thought-provoking paradoxes in this brilliant little book, is still challenged the world over despite there being masses of incontrovertible evidence literally surrounding us. Meanwhile, Einstein’s theory of relativity is taken as an article of faith, despite so few of us being capable of understanding it. What Carroll does is to give chance a second chance.

To do this Carroll examines a palette of scenarios in which he unpacks the maths, ranging from the very big, such as asteroid impact – “the mother of all accidents” – to the very small, such as human genetic uniqueness – “the accident of all mothers”. These ideas bookend his central argument, which is basically how sobering it is to realise how many “big random things” lead to producing the “small random things” of our daily lives. From an extremely improbable asteroid impact, to the wild gyrations of the Ice Age, to invisible accidents in our parents’ biology, we are alive due to an astonishing series of fortunate events.

As Carroll says: “Chance continues to reign every day over the razor-thin line between our life and death.” Entertaining and informative, Carroll’s latest is a real eye-opener.

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