The Law of Seriality

I just finished reading Arthur Koestler’s The Case of the Midwife Toad, the account of Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer’s experiments in evolution and his colleagues’ ruthless efforts to discredit his findings and destroy his career which (possibly coupled with female troubles) eventually led to his suicide in 1926.In a note left in his pocket, he expressed his wish that his body be donated to a university for dissection and study. “Perhaps my worthy colleagues,” he wrote, “will discover in my brain a trace of the qualities they found absent from the manifestations of my mental activities while I was alive.”

Aside from an interest in evolution, Kammerer was a collector of coincidences. He began his collection at the age of twenty and recorded hundreds of cases over a period of at least nineteen years:

(2a) My brother-in-law, E. von W., attended on November 4, 1910, a concert in the Bösendorf Saal (Vienna); he had seat No. 9 and his cloakroom ticket also showed No. 9.

(2b) On November 5, that is, the next day, we both attended the concert at the Philharmonic Orchestra in the Musikvereinsal (Vienna); he had seat No. 21 (given to him by a colleague, Herr R.) and cloakroom ticket No. 21.

In 1919, Kammerer published Das Gesetz der Serie in which he postulates that coincidences aren’t coincidences at all but the result of an invisible force in nature that–like gravity, magnetism, symbiosis, and so on–favors unity, symmetry, and coherence. He named his theory the law of seriality.

I was reminded of Kammerer’s law of seriality this past Wednesday when at lunch we were served hamburgers and I was handed a tray with no bun. I passed it back and pointed “Pan,” I said to the line worker, and he promptly replaced the missing bread. Not until I sat down at the table did I notice he had also forgotten the tomato.

Later that evening we had bologna sandwiches for dinner. Immediately after taking my seat, the two people beside me offered me their tomato. I thought it peculiar that my earlier deficit should be reconciled so wholly; I went from no tomato to three slices. My mood improved considerably, that is, until I began constructing my sandwich and discovered that I again had no bread.