Most of us think that we have the capacity to act freely. Our sense of morality, our legal system, our whole culture is based on the idea that there is such a thing as free will. It's embarrassing then that classical physics seems to tell a different story. And what does quantum theory have to say about free will?
Dengue fever does the opposite of what you might expect. Unlike for many diseases, if you've had this tropical virus and recovered, you might be worse off, as a second exposure to the dengue virus can be life threatening. So keeping track of the strains of the diseases is an important problem which can be solved with the help of a little randomness.
This article is based on a talk I gave at the recent John Cage exhibition in the Kettles Yard gallery in Cambridge. Cage is perhaps best known for his avant-garde music, particularly his silent 1952 composition 4′33″ but also for his use of randomness in aleatory music. But Cage also used randomness in his art.
In many sports a particular tactical conundrum arises. The team captain has to choose the best order in which to use a group of players or set-plays in the face of unknown counter choices by the opposition. Do you want to field the strongest players first to raise morale or play them last to produce a late run for victory? John D. Barrow shows that randomness holds the answer.
By cleverly cross-referencing different databases it can be possible for evil adversaries to reveal intimate information about individuals. Given that it's hard these days to keep your details off these databases, what can be done to protect privacy? We talk to Cynthia Dwork from Microsoft, whose talk at the ICM showcases some mathematical tools to keep our details safe.
Researchers from the University of Maryland have devised a new kind of random number generator that is cryptographically secure, inherently private and — most importantly — certified random by the laws of physics. Randomness is important, particularly in the age of the Internet, because it guarantees security. Valuable data and messages can be encrypted using long strings of random numbers to act as "keys", which encode and decode the information. Randomness implies unpredictability, so if the key is truly random, it's next to impossible for an outsider to guess it.
David Spiegelhalter explains that waiting for an infinite number of monkeys to produce the complete works of Shakespeare is not just a probabilistic certainty, it also gives us an insight into how long we can expect to wait for a rare event to happen.
How much evidence would you need before buying into a get rich quick scheme? Do high ice cream sales cause shark attacks? And just how likely was it that you were ever born? Andrew Stickland finds out that, when it comes to probability, our instincts can lead us seriously astray.