Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How Random is Random?

We all think that we know when something is random. But how random is random?

Part of the aim of mathematics is to unify concepts. It's what makes mathematics more than just a collection of ways to figure things out. As a side effect, though, mathematics definitions tend to be a bit counterintuitive. For example, I think we all know what the difference between a rectangle and a square is: A square has all four sides of equal length, and a rectangle doesn't.

Except that a mathematician says that squares are rectangles, because to a mathematician, it's inefficient and non-unifying to say that a rectangle is a four-sided figure with four right angles, except when all four sides have the same length. It makes more sense, from a mathematical perspective, to make squares a special case of rectangles.

So hopefully it won't come as too much of a surprise if I say that a completely deterministic process, such as flipping a coin that always comes up heads, is still considered a random process to mathematicians who study that sort of thing. So is a coin that comes up heads 90 percent of the time. Or 70 percent. Or—and maybe this is the surprise, now—50 percent. The cheat coin is simply a special case of a random process. To a mathematician, none of these processes is "more random" than the others. They just have different parameters.

What we think of as randomness, mathematicians call entropy. This is related to, but not the same thing as, the thermodynamic entropy that governs the direction of chemical reactions and is supposed to characterize the eventual fate of the universe. (Another post, another time, perhaps.) It turns out that this "information-theoretic" notion of entropy corresponds pretty well to what the rest of us call randomness. For those of you who are even the slightest bit curious, the definition of entropy for a flipped coin is

S = - ( pH lg pH + pT lg pT )

where pH and pT are the probabilities for heads and tails, respectively, and lg is logarithm to the base 2. For a 50-50 coin, the entropy is S = 1; for a completely deterministic coin (a two-headed one, for instance), the entropy is S = 0. For something in between—say, one that comes up heads 70 percent of the time—the entropy is something intermediate: in this case, S = 0.88 approximately.

So, all right, how entropic is a real coin? The answer is that it's probably less entropic—less random, that is—than you think it is, especially if you spin it. A paper by researchers from Stanford University and UC Santa Cruz (via Bruce Schneier, in turn via Coding the Wheel) has seven basic conclusions about coin flips:
  1. If the coin is tossed and caught, it has about a 51 percent chance of landing on the same face it was launched. (If it starts out as heads, for instance, there's a 51 percent chance it will end as heads.)
  2. If the coin is spun, rather than tossed, it can have a much larger than 50 percent chance of ending with the heavier side down. Spun coins can exhibit huge bias (some spun coins will fall tails up 80 percent of the time).
  3. If the coin is tossed and allowed to clatter to the floor, this probably adds randomness.
  4. If the coin is tossed and allowed to clatter to the floor where it spins, as will sometimes happen, the above spinning bias probably comes into play.
  5. A coin will land on its edge around 1 in 6000 throws.
  6. The same initial coin-flipping conditions produce the same coin flip result. That is, there's a certain amount of determinism to the coin flip.
  7. A more robust coin toss (more revolutions) decreases the bias.
Somewhat along the same lines, Ian Stewart, who for a while wrote a column on recreational mathematics for Scientific American, mentioned a study in one of his columns by an amateur mathematician (and professional journalist) named Robert Matthews. Matthews had watched a program in which the producers had asked people to toss buttered toast into the air, in a test of Murphy's Law as it applies to buttered toast. Somewhat to their surprise, the toast landed buttered side up about as often as it landed buttered side down.

Matthews decided that was not quite kosher. People, he thought, don't usually toss buttered toast into the air; they accidentally slide it off the plate or table. That ought to be taken into account when analyzing Murphy's Law of Buttered Toast. And when he did take it into account, he found something rather unusual. A process that you might have thought was fairly entropic turned out to be almost wholly deterministic, given some not-so-unusual assumptions about how fast the toast slides off the table. Unless you flick the toast off the table with significant speed, the buttered side lands face down almost all of the time. And it has nothing to do with the butter making that side heavier; it's that the rotation put on the toast as it creeps off the table is just enough to give it a half spin. Since the toast starts out buttered side up (one presumes), it ends up buttered side down. Stewart recommends that if you do see the toast beginning to slide off the table, and you can't catch it, to give it that fast flick, so that it isn't able to make a half flip, and lands buttered side up. You won't save the toast, unless you keep your floor fastidiously clean, but you might save yourself the mess of cleaning up the butter.

On the other hand, maybe there's another solution.


  1. Lovely post. Surprising to me that the first folks would so readily accept their silly conclusion that the buttered toast is a 50-50 thing. Makes no sense. Very much enjoyed the cat diagram.

  2. Thanks! Far as the first study went, I think they sort of enjoyed the conclusion (since it went against conventional wisdom), and so they weren't quite so eager to look at it too closely. And it's not as though it wasn't of some value--it ruled out some things, such as that the toast would land butter-side down because of the weight of the butter (it doesn't, given normal proportions of bread and butter).

    I am not responsible for the cat diagram, sadly. I don't remember where I got it from, exactly, but it shouldn't be too difficult to google.