What do you mean when you say ‘Random’?

After a series of blogs on Logistics, we were pondering on what next topic we should write on. Something off track, upbeat, random. But wait! That’s when it clicked. Random. What does random mean? What things are random? What’s the most random thing ever? Today, how about we look into this overused word and see what it really means.

random

If something is unpredictable, and contains no identifiable patterns, we call it random. So let’s begin our hunt for the most random thing with a coin toss. Coin flips and rolling dice are not intrinsically random, they are only random because of our ignorance. If we could know every initial condition the exact forces and properties that play for particular flip or roll, we could theoretically calculate the result before it even happened. And, sure enough, researchers have built coin flipping robots that can precisely control a flip to get the result they want 100 percent of the time.

So here is our question. Is there anything you couldn’t predict even if you knew everything? A process determined by nothing? And how can you be sure there aren’t any patterns in what you are looking at? Maybe you just haven’t looked for the right pattern yet. Or maybe you have already seen true randomness but didn’t know it because you didn’t look for long enough. As if protected by a sort of camouflage, a random process can, and will, occasionally produce patterns.

The point is, randomness is difficult to identify. It is easier to be certain that something is not random than that it is. But despite this elusiveness, we, especially young people, are calling clearly predictable things random. Like randomly running into your best friend at a popular restaurant. Or hilariously bizarre combinations of things that we call totally random because they are seemingly unrelated, even though, of course, they were chosen not in random but in a very determined way because they are all unrelated.

In the 1300s, random meant running or at great speed. Later, it would be used to describe things that have no definite purpose. It wasn’t until the 1800s that random took on a particular mathematical definition. Then, in the 1970s, MIT’s student paper popularised the use of the word random to simply mean ‘strange’.

Of course, just because something is strange doesn’t mean it has no discoverable cause. Why have we started calling so many predictable things random? Well, many theories revolve around the amount of information and new people we are confronted with at an increasing rate; now more than ever before. Perhaps it’s just easier, almost a bit of a relief to call things random, so that we can move onto synthesise other information.

But like we saw earlier, theoretically if we knew everything about the initial conditions of a coin flip or a die roll, we could calculate beforehand their outcome. Why don’t we do that more often? Well, it’s extremely difficult. Insane amounts of precision would be required because the smallest difference between two initial conditions can be magnified over time leading to chaotic, extremely difficult to predict, results.

If we want to know what really is random, we will have to look into a thought experiment which is sometimes described as a paradox. Schrodinger’s cat, devised by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935, illustrates that we won’t know whether the cat is dead or alive. But we only won’t know that till we actually see. Once we see, only then we come to know if the cat is dead or alive. Simply put, everything can be determined statistically, but with so many factors and elements impacting the ultimate outcome, it is just faster and easier for us to wait and see the outcome turn by itself. And that is when we call the thing as RANDOM.

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