How did you meet your lover? Your spouse? Your date from last Friday night? Was it love at first sight, a predetermined order or something out of your control entirely?
Questions like this may keep obsessive compulsives up at night, but the true answer can be boiled down to randomness. At least according to Dr. Leonard Mlodinow.
“One of the most profound effects of randomness is how it affects who we meet,” says Mlodinow, who appears at the Santa Rosa Junior College on Feb. 9. “Sometimes we tend to assume there is a cause for everything—not that there isn’t a cause for everything, but the cause can be unrelated to the event.”
His book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives is not about the stumble between downtown watering holes, as one might think, but about how our lives are affected by chance and random occurrences. These factors may play a more prominent role than we realize, he argues.
Sometimes the strongest relationships begin by chance. You lingered longer than normal for that second cup of coffee or took the elevator on a whim instead of the stairs, and in the process met someone special. If more people accepted randomness as playing a large part of shaping our lives, Mlodinow asserts, it could affect their outlook on life. “You would judge people differently,” he says. “You wouldn’t judge people on results. You’d have to look deeper.”
Results, he says, are simply potential plus randomness.
Even dating sites can be influenced by randomness. A certain phrase or word can contain the potential to attract someone or turn someone off, no matter how high-tech the filtering program. “There are different degrees of happiness with different people,” Mlodinow says. “The question is, do you find the right one for your life or not? There’s no real tried-and-true way of discovering that person—you happen to bump into them or not.”
He breaks down the concept scientifically: “You’re an atom, and they’re an atom, and do you actually combine to form a molecule?”
A physicist at Cal Tech, Mlodinow has authored several books, including two with Stephen Hawking and one, last year, with Deepak Chopra. It is his opinion that we as misjudge the world around us and don’t take into account that some things simply happen.
Throughout the world, there are varying opinions on just how much randomness affects us. “Some cultures think everything is controlled—fate, everything is predetermined,” says Mlodinow. Conversely, some believe everything happens by luck. His personal belief? “I believe it’s something in between.”
Some ancient cultures believed they held the fate of their romantic lives in their own hands. Balinese men believed that feeding a woman a certain kind of leaf with the image of a well-endowed god would make the woman fall in love. The Aztec chief Montezuma drank 50 cups of chocolate one day before visiting his harem of 600 women. And in one version of the myth, the Greek god of love, Eros, supposedly arose out of chaos to represent sexual desire. The adorable cherubic version we know today with the bow and arrow is the Roman incarnation Cupid, who often accompanies Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Science and popular culture have different opinions on love, too. Studies suggest most people will fall in love about seven times before marriage, while the fairy-tale notion of love at first sight is rampant in books, films and pop songs.
In addition to several books, Mlodinow has written for television, including Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver. After crafting prime-time scenarios for Richard Dean Anderson to escape from using only some lighter flint, a ketchup bottle and some duct tape, how did he wind up writing two books with the esteemed Dr. Hawking? It’s sort of a random story. Hawking happened to come across one of Mlodinow’s books, that’s all. Soon he got in contact with his agent, suggesting they work together.
Though Mlodinow’s work doesn’t focus specifically on relationships, it can be easily and directly applied to romantic endeavors. In mathematics, optimal stopping theory—also known as the marriage problem—solves the question of diminishing returns. In dating, it’s not always easy to ask a previous lover to take you back, so the problem is finding the most suitable match without having to wait too long. When should you stop looking? (There is an actual solution for this, believe it or not, and singles who understand calculus might want to Google “optimal stopping theory parabola.”)
It is a giant world, and Mlodinow recognizes that not everyone has found his or her soul mate—yet. For those looking for love, he says understanding and accepting randomness can lift one’s spirits. “You shouldn’t despair,” he says, “there’s somebody for everybody out there.
“Thomas Watson said, ‘If you want to succeed, double your failure rate,'” laughs Mlodinow. “To me, it’s a hopeful message. It’s comforting to know that if you just keep trying you’ll succeed.”