Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Randomness Week

enigma-machine

An Enigma machine. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

• August 25, 2014 • 12:00 PM

An Enigma machine. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.

All week long we’ll be posting stories about randomness and how poorly we tend to deal with it. Check back tomorrow for more.

Pick a number. Any number, one through 100. Got one? OK, so how did you pick it?

Humans are bad at creating and detecting randomness. Perceiving patterns has proven a great survival mechanism—the giant, spotted cats eat my children; this berry doesn’t make me sick—so we have evolved to be good at it. Perhaps too good. We misinterpret data all the time as a result of this desire for order. We believe that when a coin comes up heads five straight times, we are “due” for a tails, or we think that the stock market is predictable. It’s maybe unsurprising, then, that humans aren’t very good random number generators. And because of that, we’ve had to make some.

If you Google “Random Number Generators,” you’ll find several on the first page that are perfectly capable of mimicking a random process. After specifying a range, they will return a number. Do so 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 times, and you won’t find any discernible pattern to the results. Yet despite the name, the results are anything but random.

Once you learn about pseudo-randomness, it’s easy to see the world through Democritus’ eyes. Rolling dice isn’t random. Instead, the dice are governed by specific, mathematical laws, and, if we knew the exact contours of the desk and the force applied to the dice, we could calculate which sides would come to rest facing upward.

Computers are hyper-logical machines that can only follow specific commands. As explained by a BBC Radio broadcast from 2011, some of the random number generators you’ll find on Google follow something called the “Middle Squares” method: start with a seed number, which can be any number. Square that number. You’ll now have roughly twice as many digits. Take a few of the digits in the middle of that number and square that. Repeating this process is like shuffling a deck of cards. Still, if you know three basic pieces of information—the seed number, the number of digits taken from the middle of each square, and how many times the process will be repeated—you can calculate this supposedly “random” number every single time without fail.

Mathematicians have a word for this kind of randomness. They cleverly call it “pseudo-randomness”: the process passes statistical tests for randomness, yet the number itself is completely determined. On the BBC Radio broadcast, professor Colva Roney-Dougal of the University of St. Andrews says, “I can never prove that a sequence is random, I can only prove that it looks random and smells random.”

All of which brings us to this: Given the limits of human knowledge, how can we ever know if something is truly random?

A FEW ANCIENT THINKERS, known as Atomists, fathered a line of thought, which claims that, in fact, randomness doesn’t exist. The most deterministic among them, Democritus, believed the entire state of the universe could be explained through cause and effect. In other words, he was only interested in how the past dictated the present and future.

Once you learn about pseudo-randomness, it’s easy to see the world through Democritus’ eyes. Rolling dice isn’t random. Instead, the dice are governed by specific, mathematical laws, and if we knew the exact contours of the desk and the force applied to the dice, we could calculate which sides would come to rest facing upward. The same is true of shuffling cards. If we knew the exact height the cards were lifted, the exact force with which they were released, and the distance from each other, it’s completely feasible to calculate the order of the cards, time and time again. This is true for every game of chance, which are governed by Newtonian, or classical, physics. It all appears completely deterministic.

A lack of true randomness would be a huge problem, just like it was for the Germans during World War II with their revered but ultimately doomed Enigma enciphering machine. With its 150 quintillion different settings, many Allied cryptologists believed the code was unbreakable. Yet, because it was a mere matter of rotor settings and circuitry—or put simply, completely deterministic—the Allies were able to crack the code.

Since Newtonian physics has proven resistant to true randomness, cryptologists have since looked to quantum physics, or the rules that govern subatomic particles, which are completely different than Newtonian physics. Radioactive materials spontaneously throw off particles in a probabilistic manner, but the exact time when each particle will be discarded is inherently random. (We think.) So given a small window of time, the number of radioactive particles discarded can act as the seed for the random number generator.

Every time you buy something with a credit card, you’re relying on your information to be transmitted safely across a perfectly accessible network. This is where the difference between random and pseudo-random becomes vastly important. Pseudo-random patterns, like the ones created by the Enigma machine, are messages begging to be read. Random patterns are the cryptic ideal.

A company called PDH International is one of the patent-holders for Patent US6745217 B2, or “Random Number Generator Based on the Spontaneous Alpha-Decay,” the very process described above. PDH International, with an annual revenue of $10 to $25 million, specializes in the “fields of Privacy Protection, Authentication, Encryption and Electronic Document Protection.” PDH comes up with ways to safely encrypt data using true randomness from quantum physics.

BUT BACK TO THAT number you picked.

As with randomness, the more we learned about the precise nature of brain functions, we began to question whether free will was possible. If everything is the result of precise causal chains like the rolling of dice or shuffling of cards, some wondered how we can really be making genuine choices. However, as we’ve learned more about quantum physics, the possibility of genuine choice has been revitalized due to the break in the causal chain. In a way, quantum physics introduced a giant, unsolvable question mark, and question marks are good for free-will theorists. Ironically, quantum physics simultaneously undermines this line of thought, since randomness is bad for the idea that we are actually making rational choices.

So pick a number, any number. Maybe it is random after all.

Aaron Gordon
Aaron Gordon is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He also contributes to Sports on Earth, The New Yorker, Deadspin, and Slate.

More From Aaron Gordon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.