The following is my favorite scene from Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

 

ROS: Eighty-nine (times in a row a coin toss has landed heads up.).

 

GUIL: It must be indicative of something, besides the redistribution of wealth. List of possible explanations. One: I’m willing it. Inside where nothing shows, I am the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past. (He spins a coin at Ros.)

 

ROS: Heads.

 

GUIL: Two: time has stopped dead, and the single experience of one coin being spun once has been repeated ninety times…(He flips a coin, looks at it, tosses it to Ros.) On the whole, doubtful. Three: divine intervention, that is to say, a good turn from above concerning him, cf. children of Israel, or retribution from above concerning me, cf. Lot’s wife. Four: a spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually (he spins one) is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does. (It does. He tosses it to Ros.)

 

ROS: I’ve never known anything like it!

 

GUIL: And a syllogism: One, he has never known anything like it. Two, he has never known anything to write home about. Three, it is nothing to write home about…

 

…Syllogism the second: One, probability is a factor which operates within natural forces. Two, probability is not operating as a factor. Three, we are now within un-, sub-, or supernatural forces. Discuss. Not too heatedly.

 

GUIL: The scientific approach to the examination of phenomena is a defense against the pure emotion of fear. Keep tight hold and continue while there’s time. Now–counter to the previous syllogism: tricky one, follow me carefully, it may prove a comfort. If we postulate, and we just have, that within un-, sub-, or supernatural forces the probability is that the law of probability will not operate as a factor, then we must accept that the probability of the first part will not operate as a factor, in which case the law of probability will operate as a factor within un-, sub- or supernatural forces after all; in all probability, that is. Which is a great relief to me personally. Which is all very well, except that—-We have been spinning together since I don’t know when, and in all that time (if it is all that time) I don’t suppose either of us was more than a couple of gold pieces up or down. I hope that doesn’t sound surprising because its very unsurprisingness is something I am trying to keep hold of.

 

The equanimity of your average tosser of coins depends upon a law, or rather a tendency, or let us say a probability, or at any rate a mathematically calculable chance, which ensures that he will not upset himself by losing too much nor upset his opponent by winning too often. This made for a kind of harmony and a kind of confidence. It related the fortuitous and the ordained into a reassuring union which we recognized as nature. The sun came up about as often as it went down, in the long run, and a coin showed heads about as often as it showed tails. Then a messenger arrived. We had been sent for. Nothing else happened. Ninety-two coins spun consecutively have come down heads ninety-two consecutive times…and for the last three minutes on the wind of a windless day I have heard the sound of drums and flute…”

 

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