What the World Cup octopus tells us about life

The laws of nature often don’t see any reason to conform to logic.

In case you missed out on the most popular non-footballing story of the World Cup, an octopus called Paul, from Germany, became world famous for predicting Germany's results and the result of the final with a 100 per cent accuracy rate. The talented mollusc carried out his predictions by eating a mussel placed in a box decorated with the flag of the team he thought would win. Using his method, he foresaw a remarkable series of results, including a couple (Germany's freak loss to Serbia, for example) that very few humans would have predicted. Indeed, had the octopus been involved in the Watson Prediction World Cup alongside my siblings and Emily's, I would not now be sitting here as champion.

It was announced the other day that the visionary octopus would now be retiring, which means we can't have the fun ruined by him starting to get them wrong, but also robs us of the chance to see even more bizarre statistics unfold. I was thinking about the whole business while shopping for fruit. Here is what I thought.

First, not one of us believes that an octopus can possess psychic powers, and very few of us, I should think, even believe a human can. Without wanting to insult the prescient cephalopod, I doubt that he followed the competition with full understanding. Anyone who tried to make a case that this funny little story is evidence of supernatural goings-on would be laughed out of town. We're all well-trained rationalists these days and we don't think there are acts of God or telepathic beings in the sea. However, the world is a very odd place and what we should learn in the light of the octopus's performance is that although blatantly unscientific things shouldn't be believed in, the world quite often behaves in a way so bonkers that it is close to being unscientific itself, if you see what I mean.

The chances of the octopus getting it right were 50/50 each time, so the chance of him calling all seven matches accurately was, I reckon, 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 and so on. I could be wrong about this (I got a B at GSCE -- couldn't do graphs). But expressed as a percentage I imagine the statistical possibility would be somewhere the wrong side of 0.1%. Now, most things which had a 0.1% chance of happening, you would be virtually certain you could dismiss as impossible. I've had operations where there was a 0.1% chance of something going wrong, and not lost any sleep to the idea at all. If someone told you that your train would run on time provided that an octopus was able to forecast the results of seven football matches in a row, you would immediately start making alternative travel arrangements. If someone bet you a million quid that seven 50/50 events would fall into place consecutively, you'd most likely take the bet.

And more relevantly to me -- if the plot of a novel depended on a less-than-one-in-a-hundred chance, people would accuse you of contrivance. They'd say it was "unrealistic". The fact is, life is fairly often unrealistic. Science can't measure the tendency of the universe to throw you a genuine curveball.

How can this help us be optimistic? Quite simply, next time you're hoping for something highly unlikely to happen, think of the octopus and remember that logic is all very well but the laws of nature often don't see any reason to conform to it.

And on that note: after my boast of having eaten a Chomp bar with Dawn French, against any of my expectations, one commenter suggested that we set other doing-things-with-celebs targets, and I see if I can stretch my new-found optimism to imagine them happening, and then try to actually do them. His idea was "juggling with Alexei Sayle". I'm going to come out and say I think I can do that at some point over the next ten years. I'm also going to nominate a handful of similar targets:

- Singing with Paula Radcliffe

- Eating sandwiches with Steve Coogan

- Playing a board game with Adrian and Christine, formerly of the One Show.

Suggest similar doing-stuff achievements and I'll decide which of them are within the reach of my optimism, while still being just about as realistic. And feel free to set them for yourself as well. Anything is possible, if I can eat cheap chocolate with Dawn and a creature without the power of speech can know more about football than me, my brother and my dad put together.

This post originally appeared on Mark Watson's blog.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.
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To preserve the environment we hold in common, everyone has to play their part

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits.

The environmental challenge facing our capital city can seem overwhelming. Our air is poisonous. Our infrastructure built for the fossil fuel era. The need to build a clean, low carbon future can seem incompatible with competing challenges such as protecting energy security, housing and jobs.

The way we tackle this challenge will say a lot about the type of city we are. We inherit the world we live in from the generations that went before us, and only hold it until it is time to hand it over to future generations. The type of environment we leave behind for our children and grandchildren will be affected by the decisions we need to take in the short term. Our shared inheritance must be shaped by all of us in London.

Londoners currently face some crucial decisions about the way we power our city. The majority of us don't want London to be run on dirty fuel, and instead hope to see a transition to a clean energy supply. Many want to see that clean energy sourced from within London itself. This is an appealing vision: there are upsides in terms of costs, security and, crucially, the environment.

Yet the debate about how London could achieve such a future has remained limited in its scope. Air pollution has rightly dominated the environmental debate in this year’s mayoral election, but there is a small and growing call for more renewable deployment in the city.

When it comes to cities, by far the most accessible, useable renewable energy is solar, given you can install it on some part of almost every roof. Rooftop solar gives power to the householder, the business user, the public servant - anyone with a roof over their head.  And London has upwards of one million roofs. Yet it also has the lowest deployment of solar of any UK city. London can do better. 

The new mayor should take this seriously. Their leadership will be vital to achieving the transition to clean energy. The commitments of the mayoral frontrunners should spur other parts of society to act too. Zac Goldsmith has committed to a tenfold increase in the use of solar by 2025, and Sadiq Khan has pledged to implement a solar strategy that will make the most of the city’s roofs, public buildings and land owned by Transport for London.

While the next mayor will already have access to some of the tools necessary to enact these pledges (such as the London Plan, the Greater London Assembly and TfL), Londoner’s must also play their part. We must realise that to tackle this issue at the scale and speed required the only way forward is an approach where everyone is contributing.

A transition to solar energy is in the best interests of citizens, householders, businesses and employees, who can begin to take greater control of their energy.  By working together, Londoners could follow the example of Zurich, and commit to be a 2,000 watt society by 2050. This commitment both maximizes the potential of solar and manages introduces schemes to effectively manage energy demand, ensuring the city can collectively face an uncertain future with confidence.

Unfortunately, national policy is no longer sufficient to incentivise solar deployment at the scale that London requires. There is therefore an important role for the incoming Mayor in facilitating and coordinating activity. Whether it is through TfL, existing community energy schemes, or through individuals, there is much the mayor can do to drive solar which will benefit every other city-dweller and make London a cleaner and healthier place to live.

For example the new mayor should work with residents and landlords of private and social housing to encourage the deployment of solar for those who don’t own their property. He should fill the gap left by national building standards by ensuring that solar deployment is maximized on new build housing and commercial space. He can work with the operator of the electricity grid in the capital to maximize the potential of solar and find innovative ways of integrating it into the city’s power demand.

To bring this all together London should follow the example set by Nottingham and Bristol and create it’s own energy company. As a non-profit company this could supply gas and electricity to Londoners at competitive prices but also start to drive the deployment of clean energy by providing an attractive market for the power that is generated in the city. Community schemes, businesses and householders would be able to sell their power at a price that really stacks up and Londoners would receive clean energy at competitive prices.

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits. Lets hope the incoming Mayor sees it as their role to convene citizens around this aim, and create incentives to virtue that encourage the take up and deployment of solar, so that we have a healthy, clean and secure city to pass on to the next generation.