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The amazing coincidences in this episode of The List Show are drawn from the worlds of astronomy, politics, literature, and more. We've got well-known historical coincidences like the day John Adams and Thomas Jefferson passed away, along with some lesser-known (or less-considered) coincidences.

You'll learn why dinosaurs didn't enjoy total solar eclipses and find out that Galileo had an idiosyncratic (and let's just say it, kind of annoying) way of communicating with his science buddies.

In case you forgot, The List Show is a trivia-tastic, fact-filled show for curious people. Subscribe here for new Mental Floss episodes every Wednesday:


Image Credits:

Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain

Cap Trafalgar (Willy Stöwer)
Battle (Charles Dixon)
Carmania (MaritimeDigital Archive)
Jessop (HefePine23)
Olympic (LOC)
Hawke Olympic (Pmcyclist)
Britanic (Allan C. Green)
A-boms (U.S. Dept. of Energy)
Nagasaki (U.S. Marines)
Pym title page (Carl savich)
Boat damage (A. D. McCormick)
Mignonette (Tom Dudley)
Shakespeare (National Portrait Gallery)
King James Bible (Church of England)
Johnson (National Portrait Gallery)
Salinger (Blz 249)
Robert Lincoln (LOC)
Lincoln assassination (Heritage Auctions)
Garfield assassination (Mdd4696)
Garfield treatment (Sherurcij
Pan-American Expo (LOC)
McKinley (T. Dart Walker)
Wilhelm II (Imperial War Museums)
Solar eclipse (NASA)
Bailey (The Royal Astronomical Society)
Umberto (Franzy89)

CC 3.0
Kristallnacht (German Federal Archives)

CC 4.0
Britannic sink (Zm05gamer)
Bailey’s Beads (Tomruen)

Getty Images
Battleship (mechanick)
Hearts (photosynthesis)
Titanic (Central Press)
Underwater Explosion (ChristianThielNet)
Poe (Hulton Archive)
Edwin Booth (Napoleon Sarony)John Wilkes Booth (Apic)
Adams and Jefferson (Hulton Archive)
Eclipse2 (EyesWideOpen)
Eclipse3 (TPG)
Eclipse4 (Jamie Squire)
Galileo (Hulton Archive)
Saturn (Print Collector)
Kepler (Hulton Archive)
Swift (Hulton Archive)Headache (Phynart Studio)
Twin babies (AWelshLad)
Jefferson (Print Collector)
Declaration of Independence (wynnter)
Lincoln (wynnter)
Nagasaki (Keystone)
Titanic sinking (Print Collector)
WW1 catalyst (Imagno)
Ocean background (klyaksun)
Twin adults (Newton Daly)
Moon earth (NASA)

“A Thousand Black Crows” (Isobel Raven/EMI)
List Show Opening and Closing Themes by Jason Weidner
When World War I broke out, navies on both  sides of the conflict commandeered privately owned transatlantic liners.

Germany, for  example, took over the Cap Trafalgar and painted it red and black to mimic British  merchant ships like the HMS Carmania. The idea was to have a bit of deception that might  let the ship avoid unwanted attention or even give the converted vessel a leg up in battle.

Then, on September 14, 1914, the un-Carmania faced off against…the actual Carmania. By this  point the British ship had been painted gray, so the ships weren’t mirror images of each  other, but you have to assume the subterfuge wasn’t particularly effective. A fierce battle—the first ever between ocean liners—ensued, and ended with  the Cap Trafalgar sinking in a victory for British forces.

Incidentally, some sources say  the Carmania was disguised as the Cap Trafalgar at the time of the battle—a sort of deadly  ‘gift of the Magi’ situation, or something. That’s not true, but when I write a screenplay  about anthropomorphic battleships falling in love, that is the version I’m going with. Hi, I’m Justin Dodd, subbing in for Erin this week.

This is the List Show, and  that bizarre battle is just the first strange coincidence that I’m going to share with  you today, from deadly historical timing to some baffling serendipity found  in literature. Let’s get started. Depending how you see things, Violet Jessop  may be one of the luckiest women in history or one of the unluckiest.

She worked as a ship  stewardess and was aboard the Olympic in 1911 when it collided with the HMS Hawke. The  Olympic sustained damage but didn’t sink, and Jessop lived to tell the tale. Then, in April 1912, she was on-board the Titanic.

You know how that went, but  Jessop did escape aboard a lifeboat. At this point, most people would probably  have sought out a land-based line of work, but not Jessop. She soon took a job working as a nurse  aboard the Britannic, the Titanic’s sister ship, which had been turned into a hospital ship in  World War I.

Maybe they should have disguised it as the Cap Trafalgar for good luck. The Britannic  suffered an explosion, probably from an underwater mine, and sank in less than an hour. According to Jessop’s memoirs, she made it to a lifeboat, but when it got into the  water, everyone but her ditched it because it couldn’t get loose of the Britannic’s propellers.

Jessop, who had improbably never learned to swim, finally followed suit and jumped off the lifeboat,  and was evidently saved by her lifejacket. She lived to the age of 84, at which point she blew  up in a submarine— or uh, “succumbed to congestive heart failure.” Sorry—knew it was one of the two. Tsutomu Yamaguchi had a similar habit of surviving extremely unfortunate circumstances.

He  was working in Hiroshima the day the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. Yamaguchi was thrown into the air by the impact, but survived the blast and went back home to  Nagasaki. There, he ended up in the blast zone of the second A-bomb in the most improbable  way.

As Sam Kean tells the story in his book, The Violinist’s Thumb, Yamaguchi was telling his  boss about the devastation in Hiroshima. His boss countered, “‘How could one bomb...destroy a whole  city?’ … [At that moment] a white light swelled inside the room. … ‘I thought,’ he later recalled,  ‘the mushroom cloud followed me from Hiroshima.’” Though it’s estimated that around 150  people were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the respective days of the attacks, very  few were in both blast zones, like Yamaguchi. Amazingly, he still lived to be 93 years old.

Let’s pop back to the water for one more nautical coincidence. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a novel called  The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in which a ship’s crew ends up in a desperate  situation, with their boat badly damaged. Eventually, the crew draws straws to  decide who among them will be the next life-sustaining meal.

The unlucky character in  the story is named Richard Parker. He’s stabbed to death and, well, you get the idea. Two of the  characters survive to be rescued, thanks, in part, to some Richard Parker-flavored sustenance.

At  one point in the story, they also eat a tortoise. Hopefully before they resorted to cannibalism. A few decades later, a real-life yacht named the Mignonette sank in a storm in the Indian Ocean.

The four-man crew escaped to a dinghy but didn’t have time to stock many provisions. Like the men  in Poe’s story, at one point they ate a tortoise. And, like the men in Poe’s story, they resorted  to eating one of their own in a horrifying, but potentially necessary, case of cannibalism.

The unlucky young man’s name? Richard Parker In early 1611, William Shakespeare  was 46 years old. That same year, The King James Bible came out, arguably one  of the few books that has influenced English literature more than Shakespeare himself.

Allowing  for what is arguably a little bit of fuzzy math, the 46th word of Psalm 46 in that bible is shake,  while the 46th-from-the-last word is spear. This has led some to speculate that William  Shakespeare worked on the King James version of the Bible and surreptitiously  slipped his own name into the text. Like a lot of conspiracy theories about the Bard,  though, this one is more “fun to imagine” than   “supported by evidence.” Shakespeare was not the  type of formally-educated scholar who would have worked on the KJV—as the British playwright and  poet Ben Johnson put it, he had “small Latin and less Greek”—devastating classics burn.

And, as  Jim Carrey taught us in the seminal film The Number 23, you can twist numbers around to make  basically anything seem like an eerie coincidence. My initials are J & D, the 10th and 4th letters  of the alphabet, and my niece and nephew are 4 & 10 years old. Does that mean they secretly  wrote The Catcher in the Rye?

I think yes. This next item is one of the more popular  historical coincidences on record, but if you’re not familiar with it I’m happy to be the  one to tell you. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, was not, as you might read online, present  for three presidential assassinations, but his connection to the three tragedies was  close enough to raise a few eyebrows.

On the night of his father’s assassination in  1865, Robert declined an invitation to Ford’s Theatre, but he was with the President when  he passed away the next morning. In 1881, while serving as Secretary of War, Robert  was at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station when President James Garfield  was shot. Eventually, Garfield died, probably from the substandard medical  attention given to the bullet wound.

Two decades later, the star-crossed Lincoln went  to Buffalo to visit the Pan-American Exposition, a sort of New World version of the World’s Fair. When he arrived, Robert was immediately told that President William McKinley had been shot. He  visited McKinley on two occasions that week and was heartened to see that, in his estimation,  the President was on the road to recovery.

Sadly, McKinley took a turn for  the worse and died a week later. We can chalk all that up to Robert Lincoln’s  close ties to the halls of American power—it’s all a bit unlikely, perhaps, and certainly  tragic, but not completely astounding. But here’s the weirdest part: It’s possible  that Robert wouldn’t have been witness to any of these presidential tragedies if he  hadn’t narrowly avoided an accident, himself, at a Jersey City train station.

During the Civil  War, Robert found himself in a potentially lethal situation when he fell between a moving train  and the platform. He was yanked to safety by one of the most famous actors of the day:  Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, the man who would soon kill Robert’s father. While we’re on the more well-trodden path: Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died  on the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence: July  4, 1826.

Jefferson went first. The founding fathers and longtime political enemies had  rekindled their friendship later in life, but perhaps maintained some sense of rivalry:  Among Adams’s last words was this erroneous pronouncement: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Germans have their own coincidentally significant day: November 9th. A number of famous or infamous  events in German history have fallen on that day, from the announcement of Kaiser Wilhelm  II’s abdication of the throne in 1918, which put an end to the German monarchy, to  the horrors of Kristallnacht in 1938.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th,  cementing the day’s standing in the German public consciousness. Germans even have a word  for it: Schicksalstag, or “The Day of Fate.” This next coincidence might be obvious,  but I’ll admit I’d never considered it. Think about a total solar eclipse.

The moon seems  to cover up the sun, pretty much perfectly. The reason the sun and the moon  appear almost identical in size to us is an accident of time and space. As astronomer  Mark Gallaway said, "The [diameter of the] moon is almost exactly 400 [times] smaller than the  sun's diameter, and the sun is almost exact[ly] 400 times further away than the moon.” That  all adds up to a really cool sky show whenever a total eclipse happens.

But in a few hundred  million years’ time, that won’t be the case. As Gallway told Live Science, “ … the moon is  slowly moving away from the Earth at about the rate your fingernails grow,” a concept which  hurts my brain to think about. That means that, eventually, the moon won’t appear large enough  from Earth to completely eclipse the sun.

And back when the dinosaurs were around, the moon  would have appeared relatively larger in the sky, which would probably eliminate the momentary  cool diamond ring effect sometimes seen at the edge of eclipses today (that effect is referred  to as Baily’s beads, by the way, in honor of the British astronomer Francis Baily). Let’s stick with moons. Or, actually, with Saturn.

And with moons. I’ll explain. When  Galileo Galilei observed the rings of Saturn in his telescope, he wasn’t sure exactly what to  make of them.

Given the technology of the time, they probably looked like a couple of amorphous  blobs on the side of the planet. He sent letters to friends and colleagues, proudly declaring,  SMAISMRMILMEPOETALEUMIBUNENUGTTAUIRAS. *TAKE TWO* No, his cat didn’t walk across the keyboard. He had actually  disguised his observation in a jumbled anagram, which could be reordered to read “altissimum  planetam tergeminum observavi”—“I have observed that the highest planet is  threefold.” (At the time, Saturn was considered the “highest” planet because it was the farthest  one from the earth that had been observed.)x The German astronomer Johannes Kepler received  one of those cryptic letters.

The message he deciphered from that same jumble of letters read  “salve, umbistineum geminatum Martia proles,” which he translated as “Be greeted,  double-knob, children of Mars.” He concluded that Galileo was saying Mars had  two moons. Despite his completely incorrect method of deciphering the message, Kepler’s  conclusion was correct. Mars’s two moons were discovered centuries later.

Today,  we know them as Phobos and Deimos. Bonus weird ‘moons of Mars’ coincidence! After  Kepler’s time, but well before Mars’s moons were actually discovered, Jonathan Swift  wrote Gulliver’s Travels.

In the book, Swift satirized the sometimes-obscure research  being done by British scientists of his day, which he seemed to think lacked an important element  of practicality. As an example of this type of frivolous scientific inquiry, Swift discusses how  the Laputans have discovered “ … two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars …” There are some wild stories out there about doppelgängers. One, which seems likely to be  either embellished or entirely apocryphal, is about King Umberto I of Italy.

He was said  to have met a restaurateur who looked like him and had some uncanny similarities—same birth  date, a wife and child with the same name, et cetera—but there’s nothing in the way of  contemporary sources to back the story up. But strange synchronicities between  long-separated twins is a real phenomenon, as one particular pair of Jims demonstrated. The two Jims were separated by adoption a few weeks after their birth in 1940 and were  independently named James by their adoptive parents.

When they reunited, almost 40 years  later, the similarities between their lives flummoxed observers. Each had married a woman  named Linda and gotten divorced. OK, that’s a bit odd.

They each got married a second time,  each to a woman named Betty. It gets weirder! Both Jims had grown up with a dog named Toy and  an adopted brother named Larry.

Both had sons who they named James Allan (though the spelling of  the James Allans differed). As psychologist Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., director of the Minnesota  Study of Twins Reared Apart Project, said,   “I’m flabbergasted by some of the similarities.” The Jims story can teach us a couple things: one, in the battle of “nature vs. nurture,”  nature obviously can claim some victories.

The two men dealt with similar tension headaches  and put on weight at a similar time in life. There could be a genetic component that led  them to enjoy the same classes in school or develop similar smoking habits. But the Jims can also tell us something about coincidences in general, and how our  brains approach and sometimes construct them.

Well over a million twins are born each year, and  stories about long-lost twins who have little or nothing in common don’t exactly drive clicks. Given a large enough data set, random distribution means that some long-lost twins are going  to share some interesting commonalities. And once we find one area of crossover, our brains  are practically hardwired to seek out patterns identifying more.

Numerous studies have shown  people perceiving patterns where they don’t exist. Perhaps it’s a way for our brains to order the  vast amount of stimuli we’re constantly taking in; maybe it’s more comforting to  believe the universe is ordered, rather than chaotic and unpredictable. So, sure: maybe the two Jims had another set of kids who didn’t share the same first  name.

Maybe there are two other long-lost Jim twins out there right now who married women  with different names. Maybe one married a man, or vowed celibacy. The takeaway  isn’t that our DNA is destiny, or that some unseen hand is guiding our actions.

Confirmation bias is real. But coincidences are fun. In a certain way they might “mean nothing,”  but the fact that we persist in identifying them and finding them noteworthy means something.

Erin will be back for the next episode of The List Show. If you haven’t watched our series  Food History or Misconceptions, check them out. Highly-trained professionals assure me that  the likes and comments on those videos will not make me happy, but I’m willing to put  that to the test.

Thanks for watching.