The Columbus story shows the intervention of chance in history at its most capricious. The following tale has its own logic, but the confluence of serendipitous events makes it marvelous and uplifting, especially in our current dark times. It was first brought to my attention by my father back in the early 1960s at the height of America’s role as wheat breadbasket of the world. America, and especially Kansas, was supplying essential wheat to the recently independent country of India and to the Soviet Union, whose long struggle with collective farming (and other factors), especially in the Ukraine, had led to its dependency on imports.
I will not try to narrate the story O’Henry-like with a surprise ending, but announce the amazing coincidence from the start—America was supplying the USSR its own wheat! The Kansas wheat was derived from a special hardy winter variety called Turkey Red that had originated in the Ukraine and was brought to America by Mennonites. So the story is how this all came about. See Turkey Red.
It was reading Peter Hoffmann’s 2012 book Life’s Ratchet that drove home the role of determinism in biological processes, which he characterizes as a ratchet, a process that filters random behavior into a particular “purposeful” direction. Since Hoffmann is a biophysicist, his presentation is heavily guided by the physical principles of energy conversion, thermodynamics, and entropy, which makes for a fresh approach to a traditionally biological subject. The startling thing Hoffmann’s book introduced me to was the subject of molecular machines or motor proteins. These were amazing engines that harnessed the chemical and physical energy within a cell to act like miniature workers hauling materials around and constructing other molecules. The intelligent design crowd would go bonkers. See Chemical Determinism – Motor Proteins
One of the all-time examples of chance intervening in history is Christopher Columbus’s putative discovery of America. Moreover, the legend of this discovery is filled with erroneous information that was traditionally foisted upon unsuspecting elementary school children. One of the most egregious errors was the assertion that Columbus was trying to prove the earth was round and not flat. I had a picture book when I was young that showed sailors tumbling off the edge of a flat earth.
I first came upon the demythologizing of the Columbus legend from reading Isaac Azimov’s anthologized 1962 column “The Shape of Things”. His tale is so well-written, that I want to include it in its entirety. I have augmented it with some more detailed footnotes and illustrations.
See Columbus and the Irony of Chance.
This essay introduces a topic I have been thinking about for a number of years. It also may allow me to connect the math impulse to a wider range of thoughts than just those based on math or even science.
It all begins with the perennial question of “why” that drives our curiosity about the nature of things and how various situations came about, such as our physical universe, our biology, the origin of life, or historical events. The explanations are usually couched in terms of causal links: such and such happened because some other thing happened. In the physical sciences we think the causal links follow certain physical, chemical, or biological laws that we provisionally hypothesize. In the historical realm we think there are still causes, such as the physical environment (geography, climate, weather, etc.) or the imprint of individuals. But the historical chains of events are often disrupted by chance and coincidences, and some supposed links degenerate into imagined connections or associations.
In the future I plan to write a number of essays that explore and illustrate these ideas. See Causality, Chance, and Connections.