If you’ve ever picked up a deck of cards and shuffled it thoroughly, it’s almost a certainty that you’re holding a unique distribution of cards that has never before in history been seen, and those fifty-two cards will probably never be set in that order ever again.
If you’re not familiar with this fact, this probably seems impossible, yet it is 100% true.
The total possible combinations of cards in a 52-card deck is an astronomical number. In fact, astronomical doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s an unthinkably large number. Unfathomably large. Do you get it now? I’m guessing you don’t.
To figure out how many possible combinations there are, mathematicians would simply say there are 52! combinations. This number (52!) is verbalized as 52 Factorial. This simply means you take 52 and multiply it by every number less than 52, so 52x51x50x49x48… and so on, down to 1.
That doesn’t seem like it’s going to get all that large, does it? Well, here’s that actual number.
When you write it out, it’s quite obvious that it’s a large number. But I don’t think most people understand just how large this number is. In fact, it’s so large that finding ways to describe how large this number is, is nearly impossible. Here’s the best description I have found for just how big this number is. If you take this number as seconds and start a timer counting down, here’s how long it would take for the timer to reach zero:
Start by picking your favorite spot on the equator. You’re going to walk around the world along the equator, but take a very leisurely pace of one step every billion years. Make sure to pack a deck of playing cards, so you can get in a few trillion hands of solitaire between steps.
After you complete your round the world trip, remove one drop of water from the Pacific Ocean. Now do the same thing again: walk around the world at one billion years per step, removing one drop of water from the Pacific Ocean each time you circle the globe. Continue until the ocean is empty. When it is, take one sheet of paper and place it flat on the ground. Now, fill the ocean back up and start the entire process all over again, adding a sheet of paper to the stack each time you’ve emptied the ocean.
Do this until the stack of paper reaches from the Earth to the Sun. Take a glance at the timer, you will see that the three left-most digits haven’t even changed. You still have 8.063e67 more seconds to go. So, take the stack of papers down and do it all over again. One thousand times more. Unfortunately, that still won’t do it. There are still more than 5.385e67 seconds remaining. You’re just about a third of the way done.
To pass the remaining time, start shuffling your deck of cards. Every billion years deal yourself a 5-card poker hand. Each time you get a royal flush, buy yourself a lottery ticket. If that ticket wins the jackpot, throw a grain of sand into the Grand Canyon. Keep going and when you’ve filled up the canyon with sand, remove one ounce of rock from Mt. Everest. Now empty the canyon and start all over again. When you’ve levelled Mt. Everest, look at the timer, you still have 5.364e67 seconds remaining. You barely made a dent. If you were to repeat this 255 times, you would still be looking at 3.024e64 seconds. The timer would finally reach zero sometime during your 256th attempt.
(unknown author at https://czep.net/weblog/52cards.html)
Now does it make sense why I say that the deck of cards your holding has never before been seen and will never again be in that order? It’s a mathematical certainty.
So, what does all this have to do with writing a unique phrase?
The question came into my mind when I was watching an old rerun of Cheers and Diane was running around the bar with a notebook writing down quotes she heard from the patrons at the bar. I started thinking about how the writers for Cheers had to come up with some pretty good lines for her to write down and, as I often do as a writer, I wondered if I would be able to come up with anything as good if I was writing for the show.
There are many times when I’m writing a book and I come up with a good line or a humorous quip, that part of me wonders if I heard it somewhere before and I didn’t just make it up. And that led me to wondering if any line could actually be unique, or if every line has been said by someone at some point in time.
There are some 400,000 people on this planet who speak English every day. There are 171,500 words currently in the English language. The average sentence is twenty words in length. So, what are the chances that some random combination of those words has been written by someone before?
I can almost certainly create a combination of words that has never before been written by anyone, just simply by randomly choosing twenty words. For example, and just to make sure I can validate the uniqueness of my writing, it’s almost beyond a doubt that nobody in history has ever before typed the following sentence:
Likely feast north treatment fossil lose break determine majority, conclusion grandmother’s presence exit strict, eliminate thigh, expose clock furry leader!
Obviously that sentence makes zero sense, but it is probably unique. However, if I write a sentence that does make sense but that I still feel might be unique, something like this, taken from the first page of my novel, Transient:
I know bitter is a taste, or possibly an emotional reaction and not actually a physical feeling, but I can’t think of a better word to describe the daggers in my stomach as the beer churns in my gut.
Is this a unique sentence that has never before been written? Has any author in history ever taken those 33 words and arranged them in that exact order?
One of the most memorable quotes of all time is by Robert Louis Stevenson:
Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.
Just sixteen words, only thirteen of them unique, arranged in an order that is credited to him. Is it possible that he was the first person to ever speak or write down those words in that order? Of all the famous quotes and memorable lines that have ever been credited to an individual, were they really the first to speak them? Did they truly invent that order of words? If so, how many phrases are left to create? Will any combination of words someday be accredited to me?
Someday maybe I’ll learn to just enjoy watching a TV show without thoughts like these running rampant in my head.