How the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon Makes You See One Thing Everywhere

You see something for the first time. Then you see it again, and again, and again.
Marcia Wendorf

Named for the Baader-Meinhof Group (also known as the Red Army Faction), which was a notorious West German far-left militant organization founded in 1970. The Baader-Meinhof Group was responsible for a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies, and shoot-outs with the police, and that was on their good days.

The 2009 film, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, brought the gang's exploits to modern audiences, and it was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.

While the group may not have achieved all of its anti-imperialist objectives, its greatest achievement may be that its name is attached to a peculiar phenomenon which many of us have experienced. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon occurs when you see, hear, or experience something for the very first time. Then, often the next day, you see, hear, or experience it again.

Religious people might interpret the Baader-Meinhof phenomena as messages from God; agnostics may think that the phenomena are the Universe messing with us; and some don't think the phenomena is real at all, calling it a "frequency illusion," or a form of cognitive bias.

The beginning of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

The phenomenon got its start in 1994 when Minnesota resident Terry Mullen came across the name "Baader–Meinhof group" for the first time, then came across it again less than 24 hours later. Mullen described his experience on St. Paul, Minnesota Pioneer Press' online discussion board, and others quickly wrote in to say that they too had experienced the exact same thing.

Today, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon has its very own Facebook page, with 1,971 followers, one of whom perfectly encapsulated the phenomenon, writing: "Tonight I read a post on FB that included the word 'sofitting and I said to my wife 'That's an odd word... never seen it before.' Then I put down my phone, picked up my novel and in the 2nd paragraph, the same word appeared!"

If you're less inclined to believe that the phenomenon is the Universe sending you postcards, you might be more inclined to agree with scientists who call the phenomenon a "frequency illusion". That term was coined in 2005 by Arnold Zwicky, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. Zwicky concluded that the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is caused by two cognitive biases, the first being "selective attention bias." This is where we notice things that are important to us, but we disregard the rest.

The second cognitive bias is "confirmation bias", which is that we look for things that support our ideas and disregard those that don't. No disrespect to Dr. Zwicky, but a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer wasn't something that was important to me when I came across a photo of one in an August 5, 2021 article in the Daily Mail.

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The article described how scientists in the UK had just determined the composition of the giant stones at the English monument Stonehenge. The photo showed scientists at the University of Brighton using an odd-looking, yellow-colored device that looked as if a barcode scanner and a portable drill had a baby. Called a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, or XRF spectrometer, the scientists were using it to analyze a rock sample known as Phillip's Core.

Olympus XRF Spectrometer
Olympus XRF Spectrometer Source: Olympus IMS/YouTube

The 3.5-foot-long (1.1 m) Phillip's Core had been extracted in 1958 from Stone #58 — one of the great standing, or sarsen, stones at Stonehenge.  After being analyzed by the British conservation firm Van Moppes, the core then made its way, along with Van Moppes representative Robert Phillips, to Florida, where they both enjoyed a nice retirement. In 2018, the core was brought back to the UK.

Stonehenge Source: garethwiscombe/Wikimedia Commons

While a yellow XRF spectrometer is not something you see every day, in true Baader-Meinhof phenomenon fashion, I had seen the exact same unit the day before. At that time, the spectrometer was being used to analyze the paint layers on what was thought might be a lost painting by the French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, and it appeared on an episode of the BBC's "Fake or Fortune" program.

What is a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer?

XRF fluorescence is a non-destructive analytical technique that is used to determine the elements comprising a material. XRF spectrometers measure the fluorescent, or secondary, X-rays that are emitted from a sample that has been excited by a primary X-ray source.

XRF spectrometers are used to analyze rocks, minerals, sediments, fluids, and even paintings. The devices are capable of detecting all the elements comprising a sample if those elements are between magnesium (Mg, atomic number 12), and uranium (U, atomic number 92) on the Periodic Table of the Elements. XRF spectrometers are unable to detect elements outside of that range.

An XRF spectrometer works by shooting X-rays into a sample and those X-rays excite electrons, which then jump to a higher energy state, or shell. When the electrons radioactively decay, going from their excited state back to their ground state, they emit fluorescent, or secondary, X-rays that are characteristic of each atomic element that is within the aforementioned range. You could say that the spectrometer detects a kind of "spectroscopic fingerprint" of each element.

Several companies make handheld XRF analyzers including: Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc, YXLON International GmbH, Nikon Metrology NV, General Electric Company, Toshiba IT & Control Systems Corporation, and Olympus who is the maker of the yellow XRF unit I saw twice within two days.

What did the XRF spectrometers find?

Scientists determined that Stonehenge's sarsen stones are comprised mainly of sand-sized quartz grains which are locked together in a mosaic of quartz crystals. This explains why the stones have managed to survive for over 5,000 years.

Edgar Degas painting
Edgar Degas painting Source: Kosh Mart

In the case of the painting, analysts determined that the elements comprising its paint layers were consistent with the paints used by Degas. Besides making the painting's owner very happy, the analysis also gave to the world another of the Impressionist master's paintings. 

As for the founders of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Andreas Baader, and Ulrike Meinhof, both committed suicide while incarcerated, Meinhof on May 9, 1976, and Baader on October 17, 1977.

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