The unreality of luck


Fifteen-year-old Sangita stands in the remains of her room after the earthquake that struck central Nepal in April 2015. ‘I am lucky that I’m still alive… Our neighbours died, their bodies are still under the rubble.’ PHOTO/Vlad Sokhin/Panos

Optimists believe in good luck, pessimists in bad. But if it’s all a matter of perspective, does luck even exist?

Tsutomu Yamaguchi was a technical draughtsman for oil tankers when in the summer of 1945 his employer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries sent him to the Japanese city of Hiroshima for a lengthy business trip. His visit ended abruptly when the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on 6 August, and the equivalent of 15 kilotons of TNT exploded less than two miles away. Even though Yamaguchi was inside the ‘instant death zone’, he managed to escape with only burns, temporary blindness and ruptured eardrums. He headed back home to Nagasaki and, despite his injuries, was able to report to work on 9 August. Yamaguchi’s supervisor couldn’t believe his wild story about a single bomb that instantly destroyed a city and, just as he was telling Yamaguchi that his tale was crazy talk, the room filled with an unearthly, solar-white light as the Fat Man bomb detonated over Nagasaki. Yamaguchi somehow survived that blast too, and lived until 2010, when he died at the ripe old age of 93.

Was Yamaguchi lucky or unlucky? On the one hand, he was a simple businessman who was nuclear-bombed twice, which sounds about as unlucky as someone could possibly be. On the other hand, he was a survivor of the two deadliest bombs ever used in war, and still lived to old age, facts that make him seem wondrously lucky.

Or consider another wartime tale. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) is a small rocket with a charge of explosives. Designed as a tank-killer, it can punch a two-inch hole through a foot of armour, and has become a handy and commonplace battlefield weapon. In 2006, Private Channing Moss got to know one in a personal way. Moss was on patrol with an Alpha Company platoon in eastern Afghanistan when their convoy started taking fire. One enemy RPG exploded a soft-skin pickup truck, another shredded the protective armour of a Humvee, and a third hit Moss, lodging in his abdomen. Although Moss was still alive, the unexploded grenade inside his body could blow at any time. In the view of one commentator, ‘Moss was either the luckiest or unluckiest soldier in the entire US army, and no one knew for sure.’ The platoon commander called for emergency medical pickup, and a very nervous Blackhawk helicopter flight crew ferried Moss to the nearest medical outpost. The doctors and an explosive ordnance-disposal technician managed to remove the RPG, patch up Moss and safely detonate the weapon outside the bunker. Several surgeries later, he went back home to his family.

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