Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Million Random Digits

I'm currently reading The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood. It's an interesting read (though a bit long at a hefty 544 pages, which is, like, 8900 in Kindle-pages). One anecdote it contains deals with the need of various scientists, physicists; biochemists and the like for random numbers. They come in handy for tasks like studying the motion of particles and testing theories of heredity.

Anyway, back in the 1950's computers weren't so good at dealing with randomness. They were more of the give-an-instruction-get-a-result stripe. Machines that could generate a string of random numbers did exist; they were just prohibitively slow at it. To help researchers, the RAND Corporation published a book containing nothing but 1,000,000 random numbers.

A machine employed an algorithm to generate a string of random numbers, each of which was then sent to a machine that converted it from binary to decimal. This was then fed to a punch card generator. These cards could then be hand fed into another machine that would allow the output to be read. This took years to complete.

I just find it fascinating that there was a time when people (much less scientists) looked up random numbers in a book. A book, I might add, that you can still buy.

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