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Editorials • August 1, 2008

Now THAT'S a coincidence!

 Assume two people were to die in the same calendar year.  No matter the date that one person dies, the probability of the other matching that date is one in 365.  The odds of two people dying on a specific day, however, increase to one in 365 squared, or one in 133,225. 

Today, the odds of someone over 85 dying in the next year are about 15%.  The odds of two specific people in that age group both dying in the next year is therefore about 2% (15% of 15%).  About sixty years ago, the respective figures were about 25% and 6%.  Who knows what the death rate was 200 years ago.  Let’s say the odds of an elderly person living another year was a low as 50%.  The odds of two specific individuals both living another year would therefore be 25%.  Given these parameters, in 1825, the odds of two specific old men both dying on the same pre-selected day in the upcoming year would be worse than one in 500,000. 

Okay, let’s make the 1826 date July 4th which was not only the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence but the silver anniversary.  For the two old men, let’s make it difficult; both had to be signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Let’s make in even more unlikely.  Both have to have been president of the United States (of which there had only been seven in 1826).  This is getting more unlikely than winning the lottery. 

Nevertheless, incredibly, 90-year-old John Adams and 84-year-old Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after they both signed the document establishing the United States of America.  To be sure, at least Jefferson willed himself to live until that date.  He repeatedly asked if it was the Fourth yet and when told it was, he let go and passed away.  Maybe this diminishes the magnitude of the coincidence, but not by much.  Although less than monumental in its consequences, the virtual simultaneous deaths of Adams and Jefferson on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is one of the amazing facts of American history. 

Many devotees of our country’s past know that these two founding fathers died the same day.  What most do not realize is that James Monroe died on July 4, 1831.  Furthermore, James Madison died on June 28, 1836.  So, three of our first five president died on the Independence Day and if Madison could have hung on another six days, it would have been four of the first five and four in a row (Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe followed Washington in that order).  The odds of four specific individuals dying on the on the same date is one in almost 18 billion, that’s billion with a b.

By the way, next February 12th will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.  Did I mention that Charles Darwin was born the same day?  (Am I the only one who eats this stuff up?)

You may ask what all this has to do with rental housing in Berkeley.  Not a thing.  It’s summer. We’re taking some time off from grousing.  I have a cartoon on my wall-of-cartoons which shows a number of acolytes sitting at the feet of their guru.  One of them says:  “You say that life is suffering, but isn’t it also complaining?”  Complaining will commence anew next issue.


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