A historical exploration into the potentially powerful effects of random events.
Debut author Thorson says that he’s always been infatuated with the “vagaries of chance,” or the ways in which radically contingent events can change the course of history. Most chapters here briefly describe one such happening and its consequences, and others cover a more general theme, such as culinary inventions that people stumbled upon accidentally, like the potato chip or the “Toll House” chocolate chip cookie. Thorson cleverly raises hypothetical historical questions, too. For example, what would have happened if the Mongolian march across Europe in the 13th century wasn’t halted by the sudden death of Genghis Khan’s son? Or how would history have been altered if Winston Churchill hadn’t—by a stroke of remarkable luck—passed his military school entrance exam? Thorson considers plenty of small but fascinating inadvertent inventions, including Viagra and Post-it Notes, and others of greater import, such as penicillin and the pacemaker. There are also lighthearted considerations of celebrities that nearly missed their chance at fame; for example, Thorson tells of the adventitious discovery of Marilyn Monroe while she was working at a munitions plant, and of the last-second decision that kept Cary Grant off a doomed plane. People have even fortuitously discovered lost civilizations, as when an Italian farmer, digging a well in 1709, all but fell into Herculaneum—a community buried by a volcanic eruption in the year 79. In each instance, the author’s research is admirably thorough and quirkily creative, tracking down ligatures of causality that could easily have gone undetected. This breezily written work unpretentiously raises profound questions about how history’s desultory arc defeats the imposition of design. Some accounts are more plausible than others, though; for instance, it requires more than a modest inferential leap to connect the Roman Emperor Constantine’s sighting of a meteor in the fourth century with the survival and flourishing of Christianity.
A fun and engaging meditation on the flukiness of history.