randomness

Randomness is surprisingly hard to define. Fortunately the mathematical language we use to describe it is beautifully well defined.

The second guiding principle in probability theory is more subtle – universality.

Symmetry is one of the two guiding principles in understanding probabilities – if different outcomes are equivalent they should have the same probability.

How stupid systems can use clever ways of finding things.

Kolmogorov complexity gives a high value to strings of symbols that are essentially random. But isn't randomness essentially meaningless? Should a measure of information assign a low value to it? The concept of sophistication addresses this question.

There are many ways of saying the same thing — you can use many words, or few. Perhaps information should be measured in terms of the shortest way of expressing it? In the 1960s this idea led to a measure of information called Kolmogorov complexity.

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.