STRANGE BUT TRUE-Miracle a month: The amazing frequency of awe

Q. When can you expect that next "miracle" to happen to you? On average, how many do you experience every month? –O.L.O. Fatima

A. For this one, let's invoke "Littlewood's Law of Miracles," from University of Cambridge mathematician John Littlewood. As explained by noted physicist Freeman Dyson and quoted by Michael Shermer in Skeptic magazine, "During the time we are awake and actively living our lives, roughly eight hours a day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one every second, or 30,000 per day, or a million every month." 

That's a lot of life experiences coming at us, though with few exceptions, these are not even noteworthy or memorable. But then there are those one-in-a-million events, the stars in the sky, the random acts of human kindness... Call them what you will, they're the quintessence, what we live for. At one in a million, they're "the Miracles on Probability Street" (Scientific American), and they figure to happen to each of us an average of once every month.

Q. Not for pondering on a gloomy day, but which of the following natural disasters has exacted the greatest human death toll: lightning, floods/flashfloods, tornadoes/microbursts, hurricanes/tropical cyclones, blizzards, extreme cold, extreme heat/drought, hail, avalanches, fires (e.g, wildfires), earthquakes/tsunamis, volcanoes or asteroid/comet impacts? –G. Bush

A. By far it is drought– for example, a drought in China in 1876 killed as many as 13 million people, perhaps the world's worst natural disaster, answers Arizona State University climatologist Randy Cerveny, who teaches a 13-week course called "13 Ways that Nature Can Kill You," with the science behind the disasters and possible safety measures.

Q. For you baseball brainiacs, how many hits can a team collect in one inning without scoring a run? –G. Bagby

A. Six max, answers David Vincent, official scorer for the Washington Nationals. Check it out: Batter #1 singles and is caught stealing (one hit, one out). Batter #2 singles to left field and is thrown out at second base trying to stretch the hit into a double (two hits, two outs). The next three batters all single to load the bases (five hits, two outs). Batter #6 hits a ground ball which strikes one of the runners in fair territory, so the runner is out (third out) while the batter is credited with the sixth hit of the inning. No other runners are allowed to advance. No runs, six hits, three runners left on base.

Q. With six billion people alive today, making a total of maybe 60 billion who have ever lived, are we running out of unique genetic possibilities? Will non-twin doubles soon walk the Earth?–G. Mendel

A. Sixty billion's a trifling number compared to over six billion nucleotides in a person's cell nucleus, with four possibilities at every nucleotide site (ATCG) and all it takes is for each individual to differ from all other individuals at a single site, says Stanford anthropologist and geneticist Joanna L. Mountain.

So the theoretical upper limit for unique genomes is four raised to the power of six billion. In reality, many of these sequences would not be relevant– two individuals differ only maybe once every 1,000 sites- so the number drops to more like a million key nucleotide sites.

Still, taking four to the power of a million, you wind up with hundreds of thousands of digits, says Mountain. In theory, you could people all the planets of our solar system with Earth-like populations, and give every known star similar numbers of planets and people, and still each baby would be a newbie!

Fact is, a number with just 80 digits exceeds the count of atoms in the universe. Human diversity is here to stay.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.

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