I got kicked out of my math class at 14. No surprise there; I’d been booted out of my science classes too. I hated math. And I hated science. At least, that’s what I thought.
Slumped in the school corridor, I wondered how I’d ended up there. Not only did the equations of math and science seem confusing and unfair, but so did the equations of life: why I couldn’t grasp the principles of mathematics and physics? Why did I have to clown around and get thrown out? Why was I here?
But that adolescent self-pity didn’t end with school—those sentiments have followed me most of my life. And while I may be lacking in numerical aptitude, I’m highly skilled at computing statistical evidence that nothing’s going quite right for me, panicking about it, and returning to that question: “how’d I end up here?”
My life really hasn’t been “unfair”. But it’s easy to ask these kinds of questions when we feel things aren’t going our way. Seriously, why are we here? And, moreover, how?
Some people seek the answer in religion—or self-help books, hallucinogens, flotation tanks, astrology, and whatever else seems to illuminate the strange mystery of why we end up occupying our purpose-built corner of time and space. I’ve tried most of those approaches and had some interesting revelations. Although I must say, having my tarot read while tripping on mushrooms and reciting Hail Marys never really solved anything for me.
Ironically, the two things that shed the most light on the bizarre quandary of my existence were also a big source of my teenage angst: science and math.
Unless you believe in creationism, you’ll know that our existence on Earth results from a fairly long-winded process of biological trial-and-error called evolution, which suggests we descended from apes, who descended from aquatic organisms, who, in turn, descended from a precocious single cell bacteria, which upped and mutated about 3.8 billion years ago. However, it’s easy to take all that for granted when you’re broke and single, watching Facebook friends become married and rich, and you just spent the weekend doing your tax return and eating crackers.
But what were the chances of that happening? How probable was it that you would end up being who you are, at this moment in time and space? Is there a way to figure out the mathematical likelihood of one’s own existence?
The deeper you look, the weirder it gets.
“First we’d have to quantify the probability that amongst the millions of your father’s sperm cells, you were the successful one. And the probability that your parents crossed paths in the first place,” says mathematician and theoretical physicist Matthew Jenssen, Ph.D.
“The same question arises for your parents’ parents, and your parents’ parents’ parents,” he continues. “And all the way back 14 billion years, to the moment our universe exploded into existence from a ‘singularity’ thousands of times smaller than a pinhead.”
It seems computing a concrete theory for the probability of your own existence is way more mind-blowing than that acid you dropped in college.
“From a mathematical perspective,” Jenssen continues, “your very existence was so highly unlikely, that there’s a much higher probability of your pet tortoise winning Best Actor for the next five years at the Oscars than there ever was of you being born.”
Peculiar odds. But Jenssen raises the stakes:
“At every nanosecond, the universe makes countless subatomic decisions—each one randomly, with an infinitesimally small degree of probability. This maelstrom of cosmic chaos and minuscule improbability is called Quantum Mechanics, and famously made Einstein recoil, declaring that ‘God does not play dice with the universe.’”
“But from a mathematical perspective,” continues Jenssen, “it seems that He, She, or ‘It’ does [play dice]. And your very existence is the product of an inconceivable number of these dice rolls.”
Suddenly the tough day you had seems slightly less of a big deal.
The mathematics of you sitting here right now are so vastly complex that it could be considered a miracle that you’re reading this. Although miracles aren’t very scientific, so call it an ‘outcome’. You, sitting here right now reading this—in between eating that donut and checking your emails—are the outcome of a vast cosmic equation. And the chance collision of infinite variables that placed you here is way more valuable than any number of winning lottery tickets.
Maybe it was an accident, maybe an inevitability. Either way, when it seems that the chips are down, it’s worth remembering the scientific fact that you are one lucky infinitesimal paint speck on the sprawling canvas of cosmic possibility.