Can we predict our fate?

Shortly before the interview, an email comes from Florian Aigner: "Oh dear, injured in the hospital. OP date still unclear." Something with the leg, he writes, and that the conversation has to be postponed. At least a day. The Austrian has a doctorate in theoretical physics and is a science editor at the Vienna University of Technology. And he has just published a book: "Chance, the universe and you - the science of happiness" (Brandst├Ątter Verlag).

It's about strange findings from quantum physics and the question of whether you could look into the future if you only had enough information about the world. A call to the hospital.

SZ: Mr. Aigner, we can reach you in a hospital bed with your legs up?

Aigner: That's exactly how it is.

What happened? Something that gives us a shoddy introduction to the subject?

(laughs) If you will: absolutely. I slipped on the black ice yesterday and broke my kneecap. And exactly on the knee that I broke a few weeks ago.

Maybe the universe wants to tell you something?

I assume an unfortunate coincidence. Statistically very unlikely. But statistically very improbable things also happen sometimes.

How does it help the world if you explain in a book how much it depends on chance?

Much! First, we are dealing with a philosophically very exciting question: How can there be coincidences when the universe is ruled by natural laws that cannot be negotiated with? There were very clever people who assumed that everything is predetermined and that chance can only be an illusion. Do some events just happen to us by chance because we simply lack the information we need to predict them?

Second, the topic is exciting because it can bring us tremendous relief to recognize the power of chance. We learn from this that we cannot influence everything. If something goes wrong, it doesn't necessarily mean we made a mistake. Sometimes it's just bad luck - like my knee.

The saying is said to come from Einstein: "God does not roll the dice!"

Einstein is wrong about that. He was a brilliant and revolutionary spirit. But at this point he was still caught up in the philosophical thinking of Isaac Newton's spiritual successors. They assumed that you can predict the course of the world as precisely as you want, if you just look closely enough.

Is that not true?

No. Quantum physics, about which Einstein was very surprised, and the chaos theory, which he no longer experienced, brought us completely new insights. And paint a very, very much more complicated picture of the world. Chaos theory tells us that even an almost perfect knowledge of the world does not make meaningful predictions about the future possible, because even the smallest deviations can completely change the end result - like the famous flapping of a butterfly's wings that decides whether there will be a hurricane years later will or not. And quantum physics has introduced a new form of randomness into science: even if you know everything there is to know about a quantum object, it may still be that we cannot predict the result of an experiment - just the probabilities of possible results can be calculated.

This is where things get difficult for non-physicists. After all, it is about processes for which there is no longer any equivalent in the analog world. Particles, for example, that can be in several places at the same time.

Unfortunately, there are thoughts that cannot really be understood. You have to get used to them. That is also a form of understanding.

Why do we find it so difficult in normal life to accept coincidences as such?

Because evolution did not equip us for it. We specialize in recognizing laws and rules. That is what defines us humans. We are a species that is incredibly good at finding patterns, theories about them, and predictions. Often, very little information is enough for us: When you see a new work colleague, you can say very quickly, for example, whether you like him or not. You set up a theory from relatively few data points. That can of course be wrong. But we are impressively often right with these quick fixes.

We probably needed this ability to survive?

Exactly. Building theories is an evolutionarily sensible strategy. If I theories about the seasons, I have a better chance of finding food. That saved our ancestors from dying. Unfortunately, we also use this ability in areas where it no longer works well. We then recognize apparent patterns and apparent rules that do not actually exist.

For example?

The professional baseball player Dennis Grossini once had a lucky streak. And so that it wouldn't tear off, he slavishly followed a series of rituals: he always got up at the same time on match days, went to the same restaurant for lunch, ate the same, drank the same. In the afternoons he always wore the same sweater. And in the evening he needed a very specific kind of chewing tobacco. For him, all of these actions were part of the pattern that brought him success. The human brain often connects things that have nothing to do with each other - in this case sporting success and completely irrelevant everyday activities. Of course this is an extreme case. But it happens to all of us again and again to suspect deep connections where in reality only chance reigns.

According to your book, something similar happens when people attribute their success solely to their own performance.

Oh yeah. The narrative of the successful personality who owes everything to hard work and skill. Very exciting.

And wrong?

Absolutely. And possibly even dangerous. There are now entire industries that live from pretending that luck and chance don't exist - people who hold seminars in which they supposedly explain exactly what you are successful with. Of course, certain behaviors favor success. But without the necessary luck, none of this will be of any use to me. The problem with this is that only the lucky people are asked about their recipe for success. Those who have been less fortunate by chance do not hold seminars.