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Thursday, 22 April 2021

Different Lives

Click graphic to view on external site. It also has a transcript if the text is too small to read.
 
Someone posted one of our school class photographs on that web site – the one that would rather show you things it thinks you’ll like or agree with. 
 
There we are, over fifty years ago in our school uniforms, thirty-one adolescent teenagers, seventeen boys and fourteen girls with hopes and dreams and insecurities, some smiling, happy in their skins, others serious or awkward, the way we were. Should it be there with names listed? No one asked for consent. Some names are wrong. Some are missing. I’m just a question mark. Good! Was that really me?

There’s that nasty bastard whose main pastime was punching others in the face whenever he felt like it. Look, he’s left a comment. He must think no one remembers. You can see him now in his profile pictures with his arms round different women: “single, sixty, keeps fit”. He’s older than that. Hell! With his piggy eyes and thick ape-neck he looks like Harvey Weinstein. Too many hormones. Avoid! He probably thinks this post is about him.

Let’s not make it so. There’s the clever kid who got into Oxford, another who became a games teacher and the thin chap with glasses who was rubbish at sports. 

That lad killed himself on a motor bike. Went round a bend too fast. Slow tractor, plough blades on the back. Cut to pieces. We shed buckets over his empty desk until the teacher moved us round.

Look at the girls! Aren’t they lovely, every one. I hope they can see past our round shoulders, big noses, spots and collective gormlessness and think we’re lovely too.

Those three were scary, and inseparable. They all went to train as primary school teachers in Sheffield. That one became a social worker. There’s the blonde girl I dreamed about, who they paired me up with in a swimming lesson because there were unequal numbers of boys and girls. “Forget that she’s a girl,” yelled the swimming teacher when I was supposed to stand between her legs and support her thighs while she did back-stroke arms. I never dared speak to her again. And there’s the pretty girl with freckles who sat close and wrapped her leg round mine and asked if I knew of any dances I could take her to. How might things have been different if I’d said yes? Dream on. 

Dream on indeed. The chance of life! In theory, any possible pair of those boys and girls could have married and had children (married, yes, they wouldn’t have lived together then). Actually, one couple did. They went to America. What about the others? How many different pairings of sixteen boys with thirteen girls? Sorry, fifteen boys: I forgot about the motor bike. I make it 195. If each possible pair had an average of two children, then there are 390 different possible children who were never born, and three in America who were. 

Nearly four hundred sentient individuals like you and me, never born, never will be, never laughing, weeping, wanting, loving, having days of wine and roses. Never having children of their own.

Should we multiply that by 450, the number of eggs a woman ovulates during her lifetime, any of which might have been fertilised? That’s over 175,000. Should we multiply it again by another billion, the estimated number of sperm cells a man produces each month, any one of which might have fertilised one of those eggs? What’s that? A hundred and seventy five thousand billion. 

Who would these unborn souls have been? There would have been musicians and artists, drug addicts and dictators, scientists and imbeciles, leaders and thinkers, and billions upon billions of ordinary people like you and me. Some might have been bloggers. Each with a unique sense of  “me”. If any had been my children, they wouldn’t have been the children I have, they would have been entirely different children, and the two I do have would never have existed. Could they really never have been born? Could some have inhabited different bodies? No, there aren’t enough bodies. Are some stuck somewhere in a queue, in limbo?

A hundred and seventy five thousand billion distinct individuals who were never born. Three who were. From one school class.  

The numbers are bigger still in the wider world, as the linked graphic shows. It estimates the odds against any one of us existing as we do, as the equivalent of two million people each rolling a trillion sided dice and all coming up with the same number. 

It happened for me. It happened for you. “Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.” 


47 comments:

  1. The last sentence was powerful.

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    1. Yes - it's awe inspiring - quoted from the end of the graphic.

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  2. An amusing, interesting and quite personal post.

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  3. Sometimes “scientists and imbeciles” is redundant.

    I have to ask you a question. Someone left a comment on that website that 10 to the 45,000th power is not 10 with 45,000 zeroes after it but 10 with 44,999 zeroes after it. I left the following comment: “Are you sure? Ten squared has two zeroes after it and ten cubed has three zeroes after it, and so forth.” Is he right or am I right? We can’t both be right.

    I think he is confusing value with number of possibilities. That is, 0-255 is 256 possibilities but 1-255 is 255 possibilities. It depends on whether one starts at 0 or at 1. Doesn’t it?

    That’s two questions. I thought an old codger like yourself who knows what 65536 is could clear this dilemma up handily.

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    1. I'm relieved I can just scroll down to your next comment.

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  4. Quite some food for thought there, Tasker!
    If you have not yet read "Climbing Mount Improbable" by Richard Dawkins, let me recommend it to you. Not only is it a great read as such, I can also imagine you really enjoying it.

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    1. We studied The Selfish Gene at university, which I went into in some depth in the hope of an exam question on it, which we got. It sounds as if 'CMI' deals with a similar idea, that the range of evolutionary possibilities is so enormous - more than the number of atoms in the universe - that processes like natural selection are not improbable at all. I might have a look at it.

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  5. Lately every time I use my smartphone to leave a comment on a blogpost, two comments are left on the blogpost, as happened above. What are the odds of that? Better yet, how can I make it stop?

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    1. I've no idea. I don't have a smartphone (I believe I'm in the company of quite a few ex-computing people). I hope you don't minding me removing one of them.

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  6. "That unique sense of 'me'." This is something that I thought about a lot at one time, pondering what the outcome would have been if "my" particular egg had not been fertilised on that particular day at that particular time by my dad. I often wondered who would now be living on this earth now instead of me and what sort of person they would have been. I have not thought about that for quite some time now, until I read your post today.

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    1. It's terrifying, and as I wondered, where would you be now? It's beyond imagination.

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    2. I did a lot of that sort of thinking too JayCee - and how I came to be so lucky to be born in NZ and what sort of me I would have been if born a native of somewhere else. (F)

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  7. It's mind-boggling to think of all the combinations and possible outcomes if any of our parents had made different choices. My parents had a terrible marriage, but I'm really glad they got married!

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    1. I used to say to students when they came for interview that the place they decide to go to alters the course of the rest of their lives. In most cases it also alters future generations to the end of humankind.

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  8. Wait. The light dawned. 10 to the 45,000th power is not 10 with 45,000 zeroes after it, it is 1 with 45,000 zeroes after it. Hence, it would be 10 with 44,999 zeroes after it, or 45,000 zeroes in all. A 10 already has one zero in it.

    Errors such as this one make a rocket miss the moon

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    1. In light of your earlier comment above, the makers of your smartphone software must have made a similar mistake.

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  9. I feel better for reading that - don't know why quite.

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  10. It sort of makes the reincarnation theory useless, we are more like dandelions or even mullien seeds that are produced in their thousands on one plant.

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    1. Dandelions and mulleins? Thelma, I am like a beautiful primrose.

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  11. An interesting take on things and the lottery that is life itself.

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    1. It could be you. It was you. It's one lottery we all won.

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  12. Excellent post! I sometimes look at my grown children and grandchildren and think how if I had made just one decision differently none of them would exist. I then think if one of my great-grandparents had made one different decisions all of our family after that would not exist, including myself. It all really is mind boggling and your posts illustrates that and so much more very well.

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    1. Thank you. Just one different decision, even quite a small decision, out of all decisions out parents made could have meant we would not be here. Mind boggling.

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  13. Replies
    1. Lots of other things in our lives changed on whims too - choice of subjects at school, change of job, even whether or not we went to a pub at a particular time on a particular day, or if a butterfly flaps its wings in the forests of the Amazon.

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  14. Fascinating. It does remind me of my dad saying figures don't lie, but liars figure. I suppose the liar doesn't believe in miracles.

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    1. Those figures could be argued with, both mine and the ones in the professional graphic. But in this case, whatever the numbers, it's still miraculous.

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  15. Great post. Really great post and it set off lots of thinking....

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  16. Brilliant! I'm glad I read this, especially on a day I'm going to investigate the coincidences of my family tree with enormous odds stacked against the things that happened in that happening. It makes me feel really special!

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    1. It's good to feel special. I've spent years looking into family history and found incredible stories. I should blog some.

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  17. I can't help but think that we women are fertile for say, 35 years and are only able to have a baby say. once every 10 months it reduces the possible offsping quite a bit - thank goodness!
    Didn't they used to joke that a woman in China has a baby every 30 seconds and they should stop her.

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    1. As replied to Joanne, above, these numbers are all arguable. I agree a pregnancy reduces the number of years by one, but the number 35 is only an estimate in the first place. I have to admit, I'm unsure as to whether all the eggs should be multiplied by all the sperm (as in the professional graphic) or just some of the eggs by the number of sperm available in each month. But however you look at it, the possibilities are as good as infinite.

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  18. *Who would these unborn souls have been?*

    Rebecca West was puzzled that Scotland produced so few writers of genius and Ireland so many. There were gai few poets after Burns till William Soutar and MacDiarmid came along. Soutar died in his prime.
    West said the Scots were deeper than the Irish, but we did not have the gene pool or the right culture.

    I am pondering sweeter things like the blonde swimmer and the lass with freckles.
    Many years ago I would see a fair young woman on the Aberdeen train who always smiled and made friendly overtures. Later she married and her husband was convicted of her murder, though her body was never found.
    Supposing I had overcome my reserve and asked for her number?
    Haggerty

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    1. *Helen DeWitt's First Time.*
      YouTube. The Paris Review. 2016.
      Haggerty

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    2. The incidents with the blonde swimmer and the girl with freckles really happened. Later (you'll like this) I saw the swimmer standing at the end of the railway station platform with the sun shining through her dress.
      The Scots are engineers: writers of genius in stone and metal.

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    3. Railway station platforms ! How about a post on them?

      They are the cathedrals and country churches for atheists.
      Think of Antwerp rail terminus, or a station in North Yorks.
      John Wain wrote a novel about a man who went to live on one.
      Elizabeth Taylor began one of her finest novels (A Wreath of Roses) on a country railway platform.

      I want to pass away peacefully on one, seated under the glass canopy with the sun beating down. Children's laughter nearby.
      Haggerty

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  19. No girls, sadly, at my Alma mater. We only heard about them after we'd left.

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  20. Very thought-provoking. I touched on certain similar aspects of your post on my blog, which you may (or may not) find interesting. It's entitled 'The Road Not Taken - A Reflection...' What ifs are always fascinating, aren't they?

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    1. Absolutely. I suppose it's a personal version of alternative history - what if Germany had won the war and that kind og thing. Thanks for pointing me to your post. Have looked and commented.

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  21. What interesting responses to this lovely post. I hope you are now going to write about your family history and the incredible stories you discovered.
    My what ifs will be common to many women. What if the various pregnancies that failed, causing such grief at the time, had lived. Who were they? Who would they have become? I was eventually successful and am the happy mother of two healthy women, I was obviously never destined to have sons.

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    1. This one generated a lot of comments. Yours is an interesting angle. One set of my great great grandparents had 11 children, many of whom died young. Only 3 went on to have children of their own. What if?

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