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FLUKE (An Exclusive Sneak Preview)
Behold! Here's the first half of the opening chapter to my new book, "Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters," which will be published in January 2024. You're the first to read it.
I’m thrilled to share this exclusive sneak preview of the first half of the opening chapter of Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters. The second half of the opening chapter will be in your inbox on Thursday, so keep an eye out for it!
Writing this book wasn’t just an intellectual joy. It also profoundly changed how I see the world.
Pre-orders make or break authors—it often sets the trajectory for the book1—so if you want to secure your copy now, I’ve set up three rewards for those who pre-order.
You’ll get access to a Zoom chat (or an audio recording of it if you prefer) in which I talk about the book a few weeks before it’s published (in early January).
You’ll get entered into a drawing for one of three signed copies of Fluke.
You’ll get entered into a drawing for a private hour-long Zoom conversation with me and perhaps a small group of your friends/family—(or a book club?)
If you order a copy, or if you already have (thanks!), just fill out this form to get these prizes. I hope you enjoy reading Fluke even half as much as I loved writing it.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
If you could rewind your life to the very beginning and then press play, would everything turn out the same?
On October 30, 1926, Mr. and Mrs. H. L. Stimson stepped off a steam train in Kyoto, Japan, and checked into room number 56 at the nearby Miyako Hotel. Once settled, they strolled through the former imperial capital, soaking up the city’s autumnal explosion of color, as the Japanese maples turned crimson and the ginkgo trees burst into a golden shade of yellow, their trunks rising above a bed of lush green moss. They visited Kyoto’s pristine gardens, tucked into the mudstone hills that frame the city. They marveled at its historic temples, the rich heritage of a bygone shogunate embedded in each timber. Six days later, Mr. and Mrs. Stimson packed up, paid their bill, and left.
But this was no ordinary tourist visit. The Stimson name in the ledger at the Miyako Hotel would become a historical record, a relic marking a chain of events in which one man played God, sparing one hundred thousand lives while condemning a similar number to death elsewhere. It was, perhaps, the most consequential sightseeing trip in human history.
Nineteen years later, far from the Japanese maples, in the sagebrush- dotted hills of New Mexico, an unlikely group of physicists and generals gathered at a top-secret location code-named Site Y. It was May 10, 1945, three days after the Nazis had surrendered. The focus now shifted to the Pacific, where a bloody war of attrition seemed to have no end in sight. However, in this remote outpost of New Mexico, the scientists and soldiers saw a potential savior: a new weapon of unimaginable destruction that they called the Gadget.
No successful test had yet been carried out to demonstrate the weapon’s full potential, but everyone at Site Y sensed they were getting close. In preparation, thirteen men were asked to join the Target Committee, an elite group that would decide how to introduce the Gadget to the world. Which city should be destroyed? They agreed targeting Tokyo wasn’t a good idea, as heavy bombing had already devastated the new capital. After weighing up the alternatives, they agreed on a target. The first bomb would be dropped on Kyoto.
Kyoto was home to new wartime factories, including one that could churn out four hundred aircraft engines per month. Furthermore, leveling a former capital would deal a crushing blow to Japan’s morale. The Target Committee also noted a small, but perhaps crucial, point: Kyoto was an intellectual hub with an educated population, home to the prestigious Kyoto University. Those who survived would, the committee supposed, recognize that this weapon represented a new era in human history—and that the war had already been lost. The Target Committee agreed: Kyoto must be destroyed.
The committee also agreed on three backup targets: Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura. The target list was sent to President Truman. All they needed to do was wait for the bomb to be ready.
The Atomic Age dawned on July 16, 1945, with a successful test explosion in the vast emptiness of rural New Mexico. The Target Committee’s decisions were no longer theoretical. Military strategists consulted detailed maps of Kyoto and decided on ground zero for the explosion: the city’s railway yards. The intended blast site was only half a mile away from the Miyako Hotel, where Mr. and Mrs. H. L. Stimson had stayed two decades earlier.
On August 6, 1945, the bomb code-named Little Boy fell from the sky not on Kyoto, but on Hiroshima, dropped from the Enola Gay. As many as 140,000 people were killed, most of them civilians. Three days later, on August 9, Bockscar dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki, adding roughly 80,000 casualties to the horrifying death toll.
But why was Kyoto spared? And why was Nagasaki—a city that hadn’t even been considered a top-tier bombing target—destroyed? Remarkably, the lives of roughly two hundred thousand people teetered between life and death because of a tourist couple and a cloud.
By 1945, Mr. H. (Henry) L. Stimson had become America’s secretary of war, the top civilian overseeing wartime operations. As a man without a uniform, Stimson felt it was his job to develop strategic goals, not to micromanage generals on how best to achieve them. But that all changed when the Target Committee picked Kyoto for destruction.
Stimson sprang into action. In a meeting with the head of the Manhattan Project, Stimson put his foot down: “I don’t want Kyoto bombed.” In a discussion with the commander of the U.S. armed forces, Stimson insisted that there was “one city that they must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto.”2 Yet, despite his insistence, Kyoto kept reappearing on the targeting list. It ticked all the boxes, the generals insisted. It needed to be bombed. Why, they wondered, was Stimson hell-bent on protecting a nerve center of the Japanese war machine?
The generals didn’t know about the Miyako Hotel, the majestic Japanese maples, or the golden ginkgo trees.
Stimson, unwavering, went straight to the top. He met with President Truman twice in late July 1945, each time outlining his vehement opposition to destroying Kyoto. Truman finally relented. Kyoto was taken out of consideration. The final targeting list contained four cities: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and a late addition, Nagasaki. Stimson had saved what the generals called his “pet city.” The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima instead.
The second bomb was to be dropped on the city of Kokura. But as the B-29 bomber approached the city, cloud cover made it difficult to see the ground below. The clouds were unexpected. A team of army meteorologists had predicted clear skies. The pilot circled, hoping the clouds would clear. When they didn’t, the crew decided to attack a secondary target rather than risking a botched drop. As they approached Nagasaki, that city was also obscured by cloud cover. With fuel running low, they made one last pass, and the clouds parted at the last possible minute. The bomb fell at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945.
Nagasaki’s civilians were doubly unlucky: the city was a last-minute addition to the backup targeting list, and it was leveled because of a fleeting window of poor weather over another city. If the bomber had taken off a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later, countless residents of Kokura might have been incinerated instead. To this day, the Japanese refer to “Kokura’s luck” whenever someone unknowingly escapes from disaster.
Clouds spared one city, while one couple’s vacation decades earlier saved another. The story of Kyoto and Kokura poses an immediate challenge to our convenient, simplified assumptions of cause and effect following a rational, ordered progression. We like to imagine that we can understand, predict, and control the world. We want a rational explanation to make sense of the chaos of life.
The world isn’t supposed to be a place where hundreds of thousands of people live or die from decades-old nostalgia for one couple’s pleasant vacation, or because clouds flitted across the sky at just the right moment.
Children incessantly ask the most important question there is: “Why?” And from a very young age, I, like you, learned that causes and effects follow straightforward patterns—from X to Y. It’s a useful, stripped-down version of reality with precisely one cause and one effect. It helps us navigate a more complex world, distilling everything that happens into clear-cut relationships that we can understand, then tame. Touching a hot stove causes pain. Smoking causes cancer. Clouds cause rain.
But in Japan, many decades ago, clouds were the immediate cause of something other than rain: mass death in one city rather than another. More peculiar still, that mass death can only be explained through the combination of a near-infinite array of arbitrary factors that had to connect together in just the right way to lead to the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the rise of Emperor Hirohito, Einstein being born rather than somebody else, uranium being forged by geological forces millions of years earlier, countless soldiers on foreign battlefields, brilliant scientists, the Battle of Midway, on and on, until finally the devastation hinged on one pivotal vacation and one pivotal cloud. If anything about the countless preceding factors had been slightly changed, everything could have been different.
Whenever we revisit the dog-eared pages within our personal histories, we’ve all experienced Kokura’s luck (though, hopefully, on a less consequential scale). When we consider the what-if moments, it’s obvious that arbitrary, tiny changes and seemingly random, happenstance events can divert our career paths, rearrange our relationships, and transform how we see the world.
To explain how we came to be who we are, we recognize pivot points that so often were out of our control. But what we ignore are the invisible pivots, the moments that we will never realize were consequential, the near misses and near hits that are unknown to us because we have never seen, and will never see, our alternative possible lives. We can’t know what matters most because we can’t see how it might have been.
If hundreds of thousands of people could live or die based on one couple’s vacation choice decades earlier, which seemingly trivial choices or accidents could end up drastically changing the course of your life, even far into the future? Could being late to a meeting or missing an exit off the highway not just change your life, but alter the course of history? And if that happened, would you even realize it? Or would you remain blind to the radically different possible world you unknowingly left behind?
There’s a strange disconnect in how we think about the past compared to our present. When we imagine being able to travel back in time, the warning is the same: make sure you don’t touch anything. A microscopic change to the past could fundamentally alter the world. You could even accidentally delete yourself from the future. But when it comes to the present, we never think like that. Nobody tiptoes around with extreme care to make sure not to squish the wrong bug. Few panic about an irrevocably changed future after missing the bus. Instead, we imagine the little stuff doesn’t matter much because everything just gets washed out in the end.
But if every detail of the past created our present, then every moment of our present is creating our future, too.
In 1941, four years before the atomic bombs were dropped, the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story titled “The Garden of Forking Paths.” The central metaphor of the story is that humans are wandering through a garden in which the paths available to us are constantly shifting. We can survey the future and see infinite possible worlds, but in any given moment we must nonetheless decide where to take our next step. When we do, the possible paths before us change, forking endlessly, opening up new possible futures and closing others down. Every step is important.
But the most astonishing revelation is that our paths are not determined solely by us. Instead, the garden we live in has grown and been tended by everything and everyone that came before us. The paths open to us are the offshoots of past histories, paved by the past steps others have taken. More disorienting still, it is not just our steps that matter because the paths through our garden are also being constantly moved by the decisions of living people that we will neither see nor meet. In the image Borges paints for us, the paths we decide between are relentlessly redirected, our trajectories diverted, by the peculiar details of other lives we never notice, those hidden Kyoto and Kokura moments that determine the contours of our existence.
Yet, when we try to explain the world—to explain who we are, how we got here, and why the world works the way it does—we ignore the flukes. The squished bugs, the missed buses, all of it we dismiss as meaningless. We willfully ignore a bewildering truth: but for a few small changes, our lives and our societies could be profoundly different.
Instead, we return again and again to the stripped-down, storybook version of reality, as we seek new knowledge of straightforward causes and effects. X causes Y, and X is always a major factor, never a minor or random or accidental tweak. Everything can be measured, plotted onto a graph, and controlled with just the right intervention or “nudge.” We are seduced by pundits and data analysts, soothsayers who are often wrong, but rarely uncertain. When given the choice between complex uncertainty and comforting—but wrong—certainty, we too often choose comfort. Perhaps the world isn’t so simple.
Can we ever understand a world so altered by apparent flukes?
Part Two arrives in your inboxes on Thursday, in which you’ll meet a fascinating murderess; find out why it matters that octopus eyes are almost identical to our own; and learn about the mind-bending ideas of contingency vs. convergence. As I mentioned above, pre-orders are crucial to the success of an author and a book, so please consider slapping these lovely buttons:
And, in case you missed it, here are some of the nice things people have written about Fluke:
Early praise for Fluke from smart and famous people!
“Consistently gripping—dazzling in its sweep and thrillingly brain-twisting in its arguments.”
—Tom Holland, historian, author of Rubicon and Persian Fire, host of The Rest is History podcast
“Klaas explores how seemingly inconsequential actions have life-changing consequences. This utterly captivating book will make you rethink everything you have ever done.”
—Sabine Hossenfelder, physicist and New York Times bestselling author of Existential Physics: A Scientist's Guide to Life's Biggest Questions
“Fluke is the intellectual equivalent of a slap across the face…Klaas’s beautifully written application of chaos theory to human experience won’t just shift your paradigm, it’ll detonate it.”
—Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
“A brilliant meditation on the eternal clash between chaos and order, and determinism and freedom. Klaas grapples with some of the most difficult, mind-bending questions of our time—or any time—[and] makes these heady topics a blast to read.”
—Scott Patterson, New York Times bestselling author of Chaos Kings and The Quants
"In truth we are subject to a ceaseless barrage of unpredictable, but life-changing, events. Marshalling a series of provocative examples, Brian Klaas paints a convincing picture of the central role of randomness, and why there can nevertheless be a bit of order amid the chaos."
—Sean Carroll, author of The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time, and Motion
“At this book’s fascinating core is the idea that all of our actions count because of the web of connectivity that envelops us. Brian Klaas is masterful in surfacing stories of history upended on a whim.”
—Jonah Berger, New York Times bestselling author of Contagious
“In Fluke, Brian Klaas calls attention to the way chance redirects our lives and spins us into new orbits, showing how we can be energized by all of the jostling. Klaas skillfully identifies the small levers that send history roaring forward. This is a must read!"
—Maya Shankar, founder of the White House Social and Behavior Sciences Team and creator of the podcast, A Slight Change of Plans
“Drawing on many disciplines, this fascinating book explores the combination of chaos and order that governs our lives and probes the deep question of whether we truly have free will.”
—Mervyn King, co-author of Radical Uncertainty and former Governor of the Bank of England
"Klaas expertly weaves riveting stories about real people, posing deep questions with uncertain answers. Self-exploration is a journey into the unknown, and Klaas is a genial guide."
—Donald D. Hoffman, author of The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes
“Please throw the frisbee.”
—Zorro, the finest beast in the known universe
There are two reasons why pre-orders matter so much. First, early interest in a book affects whether booksellers decide to stock lots of copies…or not. Second, for bestseller lists, the first week’s sales include all previous sales, so your best shot of making a bestseller list is in the first week post-publication. It can happen later…but it’s less common.
The film Oppenheimer, as well as countless news articles, suggest that Stimson honeymooned in Kyoto. There is no solid historical evidence to back this up. It probably didn’t happen. I did, however, manage to find research that tracks down his exact hotel room in his 1920s visit, so we know that happened—and that is the reason why he intervened in 1945 to remove Kyoto from the targeting list.