Ever thought of a friend you haven't seen in years and then picked up the phone and found that they were calling you? Paul Kammerer would like to hear about it. One of the weirdest (and some would say crookedest) scientists in history, he came up with a theory of coincidences called Seriality.
Paul Kammerer was born in 1880 in Austria. He a gifted musician and passionate biologist. He was also an undeniably unstable man. He was an obsessive cataloguer, and would keep diaries of everything. He tended to end affairs by threatening suicide. And he had a lot of theories that are now considered discredited. A dedicated Larmarckian , he believed that species could acquire traits that were necessary for their survival and pass those acquired characteristics down through generations. He kept large populations of midwife toads, and put them in many deliberately unnatural environments to see if they would develop new traits.
He finally announced that, when living in relatively hot water, the toads developed black nuptial pads – special pads that males develop for mating display. Midwife toads are land creatures, and nuptial pads are meant for gripping in water, so this really was something new. As each generation developed more of these, the news became a sensation. Soon, though, speculation grew. When one scientist accused him of injecting the toads with ink, Kammerer committed suicide at the age of forty-six. Although a preserved specimen of one of those "pads" was later found to have ink in it, some say that the ink was injected after the pad was removed, to help preserve the specimen. We don't know. Today, with the discovery of epigenetics, some argue that Kammerer wasn't as deluded as he was made out to be, but his lasting legacy was Seriality.
Kammerer's obsessive recording tendencies came out most when studying seeming coincidences. He would record the times of trains, the places and times when people dropped things. He would record the number of people who walked by in a given stretch of time and what objects they were carrying. His massive amounts of data convinced him of the idea of Seriality. He believed that coincidence and probability grouped in waves, like light. These waves had peaks and valleys. When they peaked, things got very coincidental, indeed.
He believed that by carefully studying the amount and quality of coincidences in any given situation, it was possible to fit them into a kind of wave equation. Although he didn't have any practical way of changing the waves, he thought that private people, and world leaders, could recognize if they were on an upslope or a downslope of coincidence, and plan accordingly. (For example, if a spy were to notice a massing of unfavorable coincidences before a mission, he or she could delay it or change it.)
Kammerer stressed that this was not the supernatural, but a physical phenomenon, like it was in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. He argued that coincidence and probability was a non-obvious property of the universe. Others were not as convinced. Seriality is clearly not recognizable as a branch of science. But as the product of an eccentric life, it's worth knowing about.
Image: Felix Reimann