Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Randomness within Order

The seemingly random matrix code behind my student card is actually about the secret of keeping my jam for nine years.

* * * * *

My friend and I had a heated argument. I mentioned en passant that the universe is governed by randomness. "Govern" may not be a technically correct term. But the idea is that many things do not follow a set of rules. Instead, they're random and there is no way of making an educated guess on what would occur next. In radioactive decay for example, you can never predict which particle would decay next. And in transcendental numbers like pi (3.14159265358979323846...) and e (2.71828 18284 59045 23536...), there's no specific order in the sequence of numbers.

She, however, could not agree with that. She argued that just because we cannot see any pattern does not mean that there is none. If you could gather enough information about radioactive decay and process it, you might find a certain set of rules. And if you went on computing the value of pi or e, you might end up with a long sequence of repeated numbers. In other words, randomness is not a valid idea, if only we could see the whole picture.

The ability to observe patterns in things probably gave us an edge in reasoning. We observe that there is a regular pattern in the waning and waxing of the moon. Hence, we call the cycle a "month" and develop a calendar system. We also observe that an apple always falls towards the ground, never up. There is a rule that an apple never violates. We call it "the law of gravity".

We could never come in terms with disorder, because our brain is wired to always keep an eye for any telltale patterns. Therefore, isn't it reasonable, too, to say that our instinct could sometimes cloud our faculty, leading us into believing that there's a pattern within randomness? Patterns in the tea leaves, patterns in the lines on the palm, patterns in the constellations...

Take the matrix code behind my student card, for instance. Everytime I try to connect my iPhone to the university's wi-fi, I'm asked to enter three randomly chosen letters from the matrix code. Of course I would have to take out my wallet and refer to the card. But that would be too bothersome. So, I soon got fed up with the inconvenience and decided to commit it to memory instead. A 7x10 matrix, ie 70 random letters. It took me 15 minutes. It was easy once I saw the pattern in the code. It is not random. Instead, it's about the secret of keeping my jam for nine years, and about dust bunnies going to Australia, and about whacking grumpy crazy Jellabies. Nevermind what the nonsense means. It takes some imagination to decipher, I suppose.

True, being able to observe patterns within chaos is reassuring. But just because there is seemingly an order does not mean there is no randomness. Sometimes, randomness can exist within order. And more often than not, we have to come to terms with randomness.

0 persons flung their shoes: