The Science of Chance

Highly prized but hard to come by, random numbers are being sought in such things as radio static, rap music and lava lamps

June 10, 2005|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

This is the super-secret lottery vault."

It's 90 minutes before Tuesday's lunchtime picks, and Patrick Morton, the 35-year-old drawing manager for the Maryland State Lottery Agency, is only half joking as he hovers over a small keypad deep inside the studios of WJZ-TV.

Beside the keypad is a large metal door -- locked, alarmed, monitored by camera. With a quick peek over his shoulder, he briskly taps in a code known only to four others at the agency. Then he slides a key into the door and swings it open. Inside the shed-sized room are four draped lottery machines, a Compaq computer and a small safe.

The safe protects eight custom-made sets of numbered pingpong balls.

The elaborate security may seem extreme, but not to Morton. After all, he says, these tools create a commodity so precious that it earned the lottery agency nearly $1.4 billion last year: random numbers.

Valuable, elusive and often misunderstood, randomness has never been hotter. "There's definitely an increasing demand for random numbers," says Mads Haahr, a Danish computer scientist who operates a busy online service that creates and delivers them.

And it's not just lotteries and casinos. Much of the demand for randomness is driven by the Internet and the need to encrypt sensitive data.

Every time you buy a book on Amazon or bid on an eBay auction, the store's computers must generate hundreds of random numbers. These numbers, in turn, serve as mathematical code keys for scrambling credit cards and other important information.

"Randomness is really the key to all online security," says Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Scientists are also increasingly turning to random numbers to solve tough problems. Biologists, for example, tap randomness to help them predict the location and function of genes within DNA. Astrophysicists use it to gain insights into the birth and death of stars.

And without randomized clinical trials, in which some patients get experimental drugs and some get placebos, cancer researchers couldn't be sure whether a new treatment really shrinks tumors.

As the demand for randomness grows, some researchers are even dreaming up new ways to create it, experimenting with exotic sources ranging from lava lamps to radio static.

It's just the latest in a centuries-long quest for new ways to generate sequences free from predictability or pattern.

Gamblers in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were the first to seek sources of randomness. Their solution: dice.

Coins, cards and numbered balls weren't far behind. But when scientists and statisticians first became interested in random numbers, they found traditional tools too limiting.

The famed Scottish physicist Lord Kelvin grumbled in a footnote to a 1901 paper that his attempts to generate random numbers by tossing chits of paper in a bowl were "quite insufficient." Some chits, he found, were always less likely to be picked than others.

After a similarly unsuccessfully attempt to draw cards from a bag, British statistician L.H.C. Tippett hit on a more creative method in 1927: He dug up church records and recorded the middle digits from the measurements of the area of each parish. Tippett ultimately published a table of 41,600 random numbers generated this way -- the first example of an increasingly popular scientific genre.

That genre peaked in 1955, when the RAND Corp. unveiled what is still considered the magnum opus of randomness reference books: A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates.

The 600-page tome sold 500 copies in its first four months and quickly became a favorite of scientists, pollsters, lottery officials and others who required randomness in their work. RAND even received a fan letter from a Navy submarine captain who reported that he consulted the tables to avoid predictability every time he needed to take evasive action.

RAND researchers, who required nearly a decade to ensure the numbers in the book passed statistical randomness tests, did confess to cutting one corner.

"Because of the very nature of the tables, it did not seem necessary to proofread every page of the final manuscript in order to catch random errors," they wrote.

Four decades later, statistician George Marsaglia at Florida State University packed a CD-ROM with 4.8 billion randomly produced 0's and 1's. Marsaglia's recipe for randomness?

"Rap music," he explains.

After generating random digits using traditional methods, the statistician digitized several rap recordings -- turning the sounds the artists produced into more digital ones and zeros -- and then mixed the result with his previously created sequences.

The CD-ROM, he says, has been a big hit among scientists ever since.

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