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Get away from me randomness!

ib4walrus's picture

Oh hey randomness, didn’t expect you here!

             I remember browsing through the Tri-Co course guide before the spring semester started this year and wanting to take an English course both to fulfill my pre-med requirements but also to explore my interest in the literary world further. Having gone through this course, my stance on many topics have been challenged such as the debate between science vs. humanities, my sense of personal agency in the world and have learned new things such as the concept of the Library of Babel and its limitless capacity of books. However, what intrigued me the most was the acknowledgment of randomness as one of the driving forces in the world. Taking this course concurrently with a chemistry and math course at Haverford, randomness altered my thinking through the scientific perspective in this semester and this alteration will most likely be a permanent one. Randomness has challenged and made me a much more critical and skeptical analyzer of scientific results. I realize that despite empirical evidence from experiments and research, nothing can be completely certain because of the presence of randomness. I guess ultimately the idea of randomness and maybe a fear that the scientific community may have against it is the lack of agency the field will have (and people also) if they were to accept the existence of randomness.


Sciences & Math: Limiting, maybe eliminating randomness?

             Enough with this introduction though, what I really want to get into is this giant flaw that I now see in science: its resistance and sometimes not even acknowledging the impact of randomness. At least this is how most of the science I know has been taught to me anyways. Let me first start at the beginning, what drew me into science was its ability to give concrete explanations to worldly phenomena. I was definitely captivated with the idea of being able to explain anything and everything, to have the knowledge about everything in the world or strive as hard as I can to try and attain as much as I can. In the earlier years, basic scientific explanations would simply consist of conceptual words such as “the water disappears because it gets hot” which now in my understanding has evolved into “water evaporates at a certain temperature only when Gibb’s free energy is negative, where the water molecules have gained enough energy allowing it to break surpass the topmost vibrational well and break the intermolecular forces”. That was a mouthful. I’m certain that if I was to continue on in this field that my answers will get even more precise and detailed, where my current understanding would be deemed only as basic. What I might not fully understand currently can found out by venturing deep into the field, a seemingly endless pit of knowledge. This was the bait that science threw and I had its hook deep in me.

             Up until this class, science had taught me to believe that I can be certain in determining the cause of anything happening. Using the standardized scientific method, one would proceed through an experiment in the same manner regardless of the content of the experiment, the procedure would be the same: introduction (background knowledge), the question at hand, hypothesis, listing of variables, materials/procedure, analysis and finally the conclusion. The easiest and seemingly simplest step in the scientific method would be determining variables: independent, dependent and control. This step is also the basis for the entire experiment, the independent variable is the one which the experimenter will concentrate on and the only one that can be changed in its intensity. The dependent variable’s values are a result of the varying independent variables and the control variables are every other factor which is kept “constant”.  Maybe it was the fact that I found this step to be easiest is why I didn’t critically analyze it further. By deeming it easy, I never gave it another thought once my variables were set. However, I see that it was naïve of me to follow this method so blindly, to accept the results that I got and to believe that they were correct without any doubts (only if my statistical analysis deemed it significantly important but more on math later). 

            Now, I am questioning the method of determining variables and “eliminating” other variables’ effects by simply trying to “control” them. How can science be so absolutely certain in its methods that it can deem potentially influential factors negligible if we “control” them? It seems silly to declare that one variable could be the sole cause of an effect. How are we to know that some random factor that we did not take into account was the actual cause?  I guess I can understand why it is necessary for science to control variables and to isolate one “independent” variable and claim it to be the cause of all effects resulting from the experiment (unless results greatly differed from the hypothesis). It is because of what the field sets out to do… Find answers. By setting up the procedures of the scientific method out this way science can build a confidence level of sorts that the independent variable is indeed the cause of an effect rather than some random factor which was not taken into consideration. With this foundation of confidence, science could provide the answers about the natural world with the only limitation being the strength of the technology available.

            Continuing with our tendency to take into consideration only events or reactions which happen the majority of the time, mathematics (specifically statistics) both is extremely helpful in determining the general, best design/plan/etc. for future products but also can be dangerous as statistics can lull us into a false sense of security as we neglect phenomena if they are statistically unlikely to happen. For one of my internal assessments in my math course of high school, I was to use the powers of probability in order to predict the outcome of a tennis match. I won’t go deep into the mathematics behind it but basically, the outcome for a point in the match (and subsequently the match itself) were based on a preset “skill factor” for both players: for instance, say player A has a 60 percent chance of winning a point during any individual point (so then player B would only have 40 percent chance of winning). Taking this as an example of the narrow scope of statistics (usually), on top of declaring a quantitative measurement on skill level, which in itself is very variable, it does not and honestly cannot take into account other extraneous factors such as momentum, fatigue, and other real world factors. What it does give us is solely an approximation, a prediction of what might happen in most cases. In a way it tries to eliminate randomness by taking into consideration only what will happen the majority of the time. 

             Statistic’s application in chemistry is demonstrated in the Boltzmann distribution, also known as the most probable distribution is a depiction of how quanta (packet) of energy are distributed in a chemical system. 

This website provides a simulation of the seemingly endless ways that a large amount of quanta can be distributed in a system.  **In order to see the point I'm getting at, alter the amount of particles in the system and the total energy (the quanta available) in the system so that both are fairly large, perhaps around 500.  The red number in the upper right-hand corner which should say #_____ of ______ means that the first number is the distribution that is most probable out of all of the distributions possible at that point (the second number should rapidly increase and then gradually decrease until it eventually stops after a certain point).  Afterwards, click on "show" in order to see a visualization of the frequency of the distributions over a bar graph (you may have to scroll around in order to see the distributions).

             Despite having a lot of various distributions available, there is usually only one most probable distribution which chemists would solely rely on. The reason all other distributions are neglected is due to the improbable occurrence of that certain “unstable” distribution. When I first took the class, I was okay with neglecting all of the other possible energy distributions, I mean we were working on a mole quantity (that is 6.022 x 1023 different molecular energy systems) so even if other distributions existed 1000 times, it is still insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But now who are we to decide the value of something and to determine what to toss out. Through the use of probability, what if a certain chemical reaction or something of the sort only occurs because of one of the other less possible distribution (which we have neglected) but we attribute that effect to the most probable distribution? What does this propensity to disregard phenomena that do not commonly occur say about us? Are we lazy? Indifferent? Or is this an attempt at our striving to be efficient by concentrating on what will mostly occur so that no resources will be wasted on only what might occur? 


The limitations and dangers of trying to predict randomness

             At first I thought it might be due to science possibly fearing randomness but I don’t think this is the case. Rather, I feel that we use statistics in order to simplify our lives, and also it comforts us. Why would it comfort us? I believe that we as humans tend to fear randomness. There, I said it. Science and the use of statistics allows us to foreshadow probable outcomes. The ability to do this foreshadowing of sorts dispels any mystery and uncertainty that may come from doing something, anything that has a cause and effect relationship. By being able to say “oh yeah I knew that was going to happen” or “if you do ­­­­_______, then __________ will probably happen” in a way it gives us agency or at least knowledge of our surrounding world. Through statistics we won’t become blind-sighted by any outcome because we will have known about it prior (and the chances of it occurring). 

             However, statistics has one glaring limitation which can ultimately prove deadly when solely using it in real-world applications: the information gained from statistics is based on precedents. Statistics are derived from events which has already occurred, and the numbers generated are all dependent on recorded data. From this previous data, one can collate and analyze for any patterns that may show, and then list the probabilities of what will occur next. One should always be wary of using the past in order to predict the future though. I’m pretty sure that people’s level of cautiousness in regards to statistics is significantly dependent on the duration in which the statistics report. For example, one will have much more confidence in statistics collected over a long span of time such as seasonal patterns over more recent statistics with few data points. Yet we still should not limit ourselves to only use statistics when applying to real-world applications such as determining blueprints and architectural designs for buildings.

             This hold especially true for buildings as they face the brunt of natural disasters. Homes in earthquake prone areas are usually structurally reinforced in order to resist the strong vibrations. In Florida and other states around the Gulf of Mexico, dykes are built in order to resist storm surges (phenomena during large storms, especially hurricanes, where sea levels rise significantly) and other potential floodings. The statistics should ultimately be taken with a grain of salt, though it might be a good predictor of the occurrences of future events, it should not be completely trusted. For instance, dormant volcanoes, though they have not been active for years and even decades in some cases, it does not mean that they will never be active in the future. Even with the precautions though, we have no idea how to predict the intensity of the natural disasters. Take for instance, hurricane Katrina and the more recent tsunami affecting Japan. In both cases, the areas affected were “natural disaster proof” (at least for those disasters occurring most commonly in the region) to an extent but definitely not enough. Was it anybody’s fault though that greater safety concerns and precautions were not taken when first building in the area? No. There was no possible way for anybody to truly predict every possible event that could occur and affect the area.  We cannot predict the future but the acknowledgment and the attempt to “future-proof” ourselves from whatever we can think of happening is our only and best choice in these situations. 


Why do we try?

            So in the end, why do we even attempt to try and predict the future? There are seemingly an infinite amount of possible events, etc that can occur, so what’s the point in trying to even act like we could determine what might happen next? Again I want to go back and emphasize the feeling of security that we feel when we know. I guess this is also one of the reasons why I was so enraptured by science. I simply just wanted to know. To know would then eliminate any fears that I might have in the real world because I was already expecting it. The ability to expect upcoming events gave me confidence and in a way made me fearless. Even if we do not have the power to make things happen or to prevent it from happening, there is a slight feeling of power we feel when we know what will happen next and take advantage of the time before it happens to prepare ourselves. I know I for one, like to have the feeling of power, the ability to do something if needed. With predictions stemming from statistics, I don’t feel completely helpless with the future and the randomness in store. 

            Going along the lines of having power, ability to control, in situations in tandem with randomness, there is a part of my life where we try to even simulate randomness: video games and basically anything else that uses a random number generator (RNG). I used to be a huge video game junkie, playing games such as Pokemon, Golden Sun and other role-playing games (RPGs). In these games, the monsters that you fight, the items that they drop and how frequently they drop it are just some of the aspects of the game which depend on the RNG. In short, RNGs use very complicated computational methods in order to output values which appear to have no related pattern at all, and in essence, simulate randomness. However, even with these complicated methods, extreme gaming enthusiasts have found out a “crack” in the RNG. For instance, in the game Golden Sun, a rare monster has an extremely low chance of dropping a valuable item. However, if a series of steps is followed, every time you were to face the monster and following the procedure exactly, the monster will drop the valuable item without fail. 

             Instances like this show that true randomness cannot be synthesized. It also shows how we always try to “crack” this “code” that is randomness. To conscientiously try and gain knowledge about something that is by definition something “made, done or happening without method or conscious”. It illustrates our insatiable desire to try and figure the mechanics behind any and all phenomena in the world. It is this desire which drives science forward, which I am eager to be a part of in the future. However, I am not going to be so easily persuaded by data (even if it’s empirical), rather I would make sure to critically analyze it to make certain (as certain as I possibly can) that what results I came to would hold true. I don’t feel that absolute true certainty could really ever exist with the presence of randomness, and though this may reduce my sense of agency, I have come to terms with it. By embracing randomness, we actually will become better suited for the world.  Science should try as best as it can to adapt to this unpredictability rather than avoid it entirely, if it wants to be useful in real world applications.