What are the chances of living a fairy tale?
There is an answer for youngsters, including my 10-year-old daughter, Rory, who watched Britain’s latest royal wedding Saturday and asked, “Can I be a princess?” Or at least there’s a way to figure the odds.
When I was the science guy at the Capital Children’s Museum (since renamed the National Children’s Museum), I got used to questions about long-shot odds. What are the chances of life on another planet? Am I likely to be killed by an asteroid? Does lightning strike twice? We can estimate all of that.
Curmudgeons may note Meghan Markle doesn’t get the “princess” title, even after marrying Prince Harry, but a future King William could bestow it as desired. Surely the odds of becoming a princess are getting better.
But how much better, really? Better than the chance of winning the Powerball jackpot (1 in 292 million)? Long-shot odds are not intuitive. Golfers, for instance, are more likely to be run over by a golf cart (1 in 1,533) than to hit a hole in one (1 in 12,500). Rory might not guess that she has a better chance of becoming a professional athlete (1 in 27,300) than a neurosurgeon (1 in 98,400), or of being president (1 in 10 million, gender aside) than a saint (1 in 20 million).
She’s evidently less likely to spot a UFO (1 in 3 million) — a privilege claimed by both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, against astronomical odds — than to die by meteor strike (1 in 1,600,000, according to a Tulane University scientist).
And what’s her shot at becoming a princess? Science offers a model for calculating rare events, the Drake Equation, a means of figuring the probability of extraterrestrial life. It estimates the relevant factors — the number of stars, planets per star, the proportion of those in a habitable zone — to arrive at the overall probability. Each estimate is a guess, but not a random one, and increasing any factor raises the overall chance.
So Meghan Markle’s switch from Ms. to Duchess does add hope to the Princess Equation. Her marriage lifts the historical odds of a union between royal and commoner, especially an American one.
How many princely suitors abound? Under the strictest definition of “prince,” not lots: There are only about 60 unmarried males over age 15 among the royal houses of Europe, with a proportional rising generation. If Rory vies with other princess contenders from Europe and America — let’s say females between the ages of 20 and 40 — that’s a field of 60 million. The probability of finding her prince: one in a million.
That doesn’t sound bad; it’s more likely to happen than getting conked on the head by an asteroid. But to improve Rory’s odds, let’s look beyond Europe.
There are royals in Africa and Asia, including a new king elected in Malaysia every five years; he and his sons retain their titles for life. But few of them speak English, and Rory has scant chance of studying, say, Malay (number of American universities consistently offering the language: 0). Saudi Arabia has 7,000 princes, but I’d guess the odds are heavy against a cross-cultural marriage there. Nearby, Queen Noor of Jordan (born Lisa Najeeb Halaby in Washington) managed the feat; her grandparents ran a rug boutique in Texas.
Perhaps Rory has a greater likelihood of forming a new monarchy, or allying with one. In 1967, Paddy Roy Bates founded the Principality of Sealand on a steel platform six miles off the coast of England. The size of two tennis courts, Sealand has seen two violent coups by hired mercenaries, one kidnapping and an international hostage negotiation mediated by a German diplomat. After a devastating fire in 2006, putative Prince James (grandson of Paddy) scaled a grappling-hook ladder to replant Sealand’s flag on the platform. James recently married a commoner, incidentally.
The Principality of Hutt River, 300 miles north of Perth, Australia, offers further hope. It seceded in 1970 when farmer Leonard George Casley balked at Australian wheat production quotas. Hutt River proclaimed independence, though its mail had to be routed through Canada for five more years until relations with Australia normalized. The principality boasts its own stamps, coins and, most important, 23 royal great-grandchildren.
The Dominion of British West Florida claims a noble family, as did the Kingdom of Vikesland in central Canada. Vikesland shut down in March, after 14 years of self-declared independence, but it still fared better than Rose Island, founded by engineer and tax resister Giorgio Rosa on 400 square meters of scaffolding in the Adriatic Sea. Italy destroyed it with naval fire. Rory might rather be hit by lightning, twice (1 in 9 million), than hitch herself to such a monarchy.
Perhaps asking to be a princess is really a way of seeking the ideal mate. Rory’s odds, thankfully, are better there at least (1 in 285,000, according to a mathematician at Britain’s University of Warwick, using a variant of the Drake Equation). But once a 10-year-old has watched Meghan Markle hold hands with Prince Harry at the altar, numbers cease to matter. She sees a princess, against all odds.
Dan Newman is a writer and teacher. He was science manager at the Capital Children’s Museum in the 1990s.
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