Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 9)

ROBERTS I see. The smaller the event, the bigger the outcome, the better the story. The more famous the person happens to be . . .

MLODINOW The idea that Bruce Willis decides to visit his girlfriend in Los Angeles leads to the Diehard series is interesting. It’s a more interesting idea than the fact that I’m on my way to the mailbox to mail a letter turning down a fellowship to Germany when I bump in–literally cross paths at the mailbox, when I was in school–with the lady from the fellowship office who’s appalled that I’m not taking this fellowship that is so hard to get and makes me go talk to my advisor about it. I literally had the envelope in hand turning it down and it was the last day for deciding. I go to my advisor whom I’m sure will agree with me that it’s a stupid thing to leave Berkeley and go to Germany for a year on this fellowship and he convinced me to do it. That completely changed my life. Had I not bumped into this lady, had I not had an extra sip or had I had two extra sips instead of one of my coffee, we would not have crossed paths, literally, at the mailbox. It’s a really bizarre thing and . . .

ROBERTS You mean your advisor convinced you to take the fellowship?

MLODINOW He convinced me to take the fellowship and go and I hadn’t even considered it, I just thought, ‘Well here I am in graduate school, I have to get through and to go on something that could be just a lark in Germany . . .’ But I ended up meeting a woman I fell in love with, learning the language, loving Europe, staying there for years. Many, many things in my life changed; it was really a life changing experience and I think it broadened my horizons quite a bit also, living abroad. It just changes your whole view of the world. All that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t literally crossed paths on campus with this lady. To make the story weirder, I had heard about the fellowship a month earlier or six weeks earlier,  I don’t remember, but just ignored it and by chance the night before had come across the letter and thought, ‘Oh I shouldn’t be impolite, I should tell them whether I’m taking it or not; someone else might be waiting for this.’ That’s why I wrote the letter and was walking to the mailbox that next day. If anything, had I found the letter a day earlier and sent it out or not found the letter on my desk or not bumped into her or any of those things wouldn’t have happened, I would not have had these experiences.

ROBERTS I think different events have different potentials for change–you could say they have different life-changing potency. If you spend an hour doing the events with the big life-changing potencies you’re going to be in a lot better position than if you spend an hour doing the dead events, the events that are unlikely to change your life. I think your example plays into what I think because I think traveling is one of the events that has high life-changing potency.

MLODINOW Yes, that’s true.

ROBERTS And why that is, I think, is sort of interesting. You refer to something you call the Normal Accident Theory of life–what is that?

MLODINOW The Normal Accident Theory of accidents. The Theory of Normal Accidents is the theory that in a complex system you can’t prevent accidents; they will happen and you need to account for them, you need to plan for them and you should stop–well, I shouldn’t say stop–but you should give up the idea of zero tolerance and certainly try to minimize them. You also have to look at implications of when they occur because they will occur and in a very complex system there are always going to be events that on their own–or even in certain other combinations–are unremarkable and yet together in certain combinations can cause huge catastrophes.

One example is the story that I just told, meeting the lady at the mailbox. If you want to consider that–I don’t want to say that it was a catastrophe–but it was on a big event which is the life-changing event of going and the little things that caused it that are normally totally unremarkable such as straightening out my desk, which caused me to find the letter. Taking the letter to the mailbox on my way to work and a number of other things that were minor and on their own not noteworthy conspired to have me collide with this lady at that time and end up in Germany. The nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island or the space shuttle or Chernobyl, these are complex systems that are so complicated that little events can conspire to cause a big event which can be a big tragic event. After those big events–after 9/11, after Pearl Harbor–we go back and we find the little events that made the big event happen and we blame people for not having avoided them.  The question in the Normal Accident Theory is whether that’s really wise because you can’t know ahead of time what those un-noteworthy events will mean what or will cause what. Finding the actual events and tracing the path of tragedy doesn’t really tell you a lot because there are a million possible paths which could have happened.  You couldn’t have worried about all of them.  And only one of them, which is really not distinguishable from the others, a priori, is the one that led to the catastrophe. It’s all about trying to understand that–that’s the Normal Accident Theory.

I think in life, as I just said, I think that a lot of unremarkable, un-noteworthy events happen to push you this way or that, give you different opportunities or cause things to happen in your life that have the potential to cause major changes in life. It’s as much that sort of thing than your actual planning and conniving on how to get ahead causes you to get where you are.

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