Are coincidences real ?

The rationalist in me knows that coincidences are inevitable, mundane, meaningless. But I can’t deny there is something strange and magical in them, too

 Paul Broks

The term “coincidence” covers a wide range of phenomena, from the cosmic (in a total solar eclipse, the disc of the moon and the disc of the sun, by sheer chance, appear to have precisely the same diameter) to the personal and parochial (my granddaughter has the same birthday as my late wife). On the human, experiential, scale, a broad distinction can be drawn between serendipity – timely, but unplanned, discoveries or development of events – and what the 20th-century Lamarckian biologist and coincidence collector Paul Kammerer called seriality, which he defined as “a lawful recurrence of the same or similar things or events … in time and space”.

The biography of the actor Anthony Hopkins contains a striking example of a serendipitous coincidence. When he first heard he’d been cast to play a part in the film The Girl from Petrovka (1974), Hopkins went in search of a copy of the book on which it was based, a novel by George Feifer. He combed the bookshops of London in vain and, somewhat dejected, gave up and headed home. Then, to his amazement, he spotted a copy of The Girl from Petrovka lying on a bench at Leicester Square station. He recounted the story to Feifer when they met on location, and it transpired that the book Hopkins had stumbled upon was the very one that the author had mislaid in another part of London – an advance copy full of red-ink amendments and marginal notes he’d made in preparation for a US edition….