Friday, 11 January 2013

Making connections

One of the things that fascinates me as a writer is the connectedness of people. In any story, we forge connections between made-up people. Some of those connections are overt – a husband and wife, say – and other times they are more subtle. In a crime novel, the connections between victim and killer may be hidden from the reader, but with clues scattered about the pages as to what those links might be. To maintain credibility, authors have to establish connections that aren’t completely ludicrous, but quite often the ones that arise in real life are even more surprising. How often have you become acquainted with a complete stranger, only to discover later that they were born near you, or went to the same school, or know someone that you know? These coincidences happen all the time, but have to be used carefully in our stories, or readers will cry foul.

In many ways we are more connected than we suspect, and that is the reason why we experience shock or even a sense of the supernatural when these connections are made apparent. A factor in this is that statistical laws that apply globally feel strangely targeted when they affect us as individuals. We tend to think of ourselves in isolation, rather than as a single member of a much larger population. An example is when you think of a friend or relative, and then immediately receive a phone call from them. An event like that can seem really spooky, because we reason that the  chances against such a thing happening to us must be astronomical, but that is solely because we think about such things on a personal level. Yes, the chances of such a coincidence happening to a particular individual are probably very small, but we need to think about it in more global terms. There are billions of people on the planet, all thinking about other people. On that scale, the probability that some of those people will receive a phone call from the object of their thoughts is actually pretty high. It’s a bit like the lottery. The chances of me in particular winning the top lottery prize in a given week are vanishingly small; however, the probability that someone somewhere will win it is quite good.

Here’s another example of the kind of connections that exist between people but that we fail to perceive. I’ll phrase it as a question: What is the smallest number of people you would need in order to give a 50-50 chance that two of the group will share the same birthday?

Over a hundred? Maybe even two hundred?

The answer is just 23. And as we increase that number, the probability rises dramatically. In a class of 30 kids, there will be a 70% chance that two of them have the same birthday. Take the group size up to 40, and the odds are nearly 90% in favour of a shared birthday.

See what I mean about connections?

Here’s another example that I never tire of playing around with. You have probably seen the current advertising campaign for a phone company in which Kevin Bacon refers to himself as ‘the centre of the universe’. What you might not know is that this campaign borrows from something that has been around for some time, in which Kevin Bacon is actually viewed as the centre of the acting universe, and every other actor is given a ‘Bacon number’ which shows how closely they have acted with Kevin. If an actor has a Bacon number of one, that means they acted with him directly. An actor who acted with someone else who acted with Kevin has a Bacon number of two, and so on.

What I find astonishing about Bacon numbers is how close any other actor you can think of is connected with Kevin Bacon. Not convinced? Try it yourself by following this link to the Oracle of Bacon. Enter an actor – even a really obscure one – and the oracle will tell you just how closely connected he or she is to Kevin. Be warned, though: it’s addictive once you get started.

Have fun!

By the way, my debut novel PARIAH is still available on Amazon Kindle for just 74p. Get it here while you can!

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