Random Thoughts on Randomness

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Fermilab’s “Hot Bits” logo displays random binary values in real time.

Sometimes problems that seem easy are actually difficult. One of these problems in the generation of random numbers. I won’t get into a discussion of what randomness means in a statistical sense, except to say that it means something that’s unpredictable, with no discernible pattern. In the physical world, it’s easy – we can roll dice, draw a piece of paper from a hat, or spin a wheel. Electronics, however, play by different rules. We have spent decades developing integrated circuits that behave consistently, and computer programs that execute the same way every time. This makes randomness a big deal.

Why do we need randomness? One of the major applications is in gaming. For example, if you want to simulate a turn-based board game, your computer, phone or console needs to be able to roll those dice. Another more critical use is in encryption, the technology that allows us to keep our conversations and financial transactions private. Random numbers are used in the creation of numeric keys, which are then used to convert readable data to gibberish and back to data on the receiving end.

The simplest approach is by the use of a PRNG, or pseudo-random number generator. We add the prefix “pseudo” because mathematically, it’s not really random; the function is just complex enough to seem that way. A commonly used method is the linear congruential generator, which is the basis of the Unix library function “rand.” It’s fast, efficient, and requires minimal memory. This is fine for games, but for encryption, the stakes are higher. An attacker who sought to compromise a secure system might discover how the numbers are generated and use them to guess at keys. The problem is actually more difficult than that, but if the attacker is sufficiently motivated, it could be a serious weakness.

Why not use a hardware-based solution to achieve real-world randomness in number generation? People have tried a number of different approaches, including monitoring the decay of a radioactive source, which is the basis behind Fermilab’s Hotbits service.  Another option is to convert atmospheric noise to numeric values, which is used by the website random.org. The drawbacks of the hardware method include the initial cost of acquiring the hardware and the relative slowness of true random number production. At Fermilab it’s only 100 bytes per second, which is why they ask you to email them a request for a particular number of bytes; they send back data which they have pre-generated.

I’ve long wondered if someone could create a portable device to create random numbers for your PC. After doing a bit of USB development, I thought about creating a USB key to do this. Well,m somebody has beat me to it. Simtec electronics has a product which they call the “Entropy Key” which uses “two high-quality noise generators” to create the requisite random data. They’re a bit pricey, 36 pounds (currently about $44) each in single unit quantities, not including shipping. Their website says they currently have none in stock and there is a long wait. Another company, called Idquantique, provides random number modules incorporated in PC add-on boards, but these cost hundreds of dollars apiece.

Randomness, like air and water, is something we take for granted in everyday life, and often get for free. In certain applications, however, randomness can be very expensive indeed.

If you enjoy stories where the unexpected happens, download my short e-book Found Pet, in which a man who adopts a cute furry animal gets more than he bargained for.

SCIENCE SATURDAY: Escape from Earth

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Earthrise over the Moon, photographed by the Apollo 11 astronauts, from history.nasa.gov

One of the greatest disappointments of my life has been the stalling of space exploration. Considering the rate of the Apollo moon missions in the 1970’s, I expected we’d have a permanent base there by now. Unfortunately, so much of humanity’s resources have been wasted on war, both military and economic, that it’s crippled our efforts to get into space. I believe it will happen eventually, but probably not in my lifetime.

Why should humans go into space? As mountaineer George Mallory said about Everest, “because it’s there.” There are tangible benefits as well, which include scientific discoveries, zero-G manufacturing technology, mining resources in space, and the ability to avert (or survive) a planetary emergency. We’ve already benefited from sending machines into orbit. Satellites for weather, communications, and research have revolutionized our lives.

Because government priorities are driven by the whims of politicians and the fickle attention of the public, NASA and other government agencies are not the answer. The private sector needs to play a major role. Private business in space got off to a slow start, in part to government regulations and the concern that space travel could be weaponized. Since the end of the Shuttle program, and the collapse of America’s Soviet competitor, we’ve seen the birth of a free-enterprise space race. Companies such as Orbital, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and dozens of others have taken up the torch.

Even without the burden of government taxation and regulation, the economics of space exploration are still daunting. A 2011 estimate of the cost to get 1 kg of material into low earth orbit was approximately $1000. New technologies such as magnetic rail guns may be helpful (for inert material rather than living things), but escaping the earth’s gravity will remain expensive for a very long time.

The microgravity that makes space exploration so interesting to engineers is also a hazard to the long-term human habitation of space. Rotating space stations are a staple of science fiction because it’s the best way to simulate gravity in orbit. Yet we have not yet created anything of the sort. Once again it’s a matter of resources. To be useful as a human habitation, a rotating station would have to be quite a bit larger than anything we’ve built so far, including the International Space Station. It would also have to be strong enough to stand the stress of constant rotation.

I have hope that mankind will eventually break such barriers. Increased funding to NASA could be a carrot to the aerospace industry as America withdraws from its unproductive interventions abroad. As the US and Russia settle their differences, I look forward to more cooperative ventures between the two countries. But for the most part, the government needs to get out of the way. It’s time for space enthusiasts to put their money where their mouths are and invest in companies that will help us break the shackles of Earth.

If you like the mysteries of space, you’ll enjoy my story Found Pet, available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Found-Pet-Vaughn-Treude-ebook/dp/B018H41FRM

SCIENCE SATURDAY: Nanotechnology, or Let’s Get Small

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Technology fads come and go as they vie for the attention of our fickle media. One such fad was nanotechnology, the branch of engineering which operates at or near the molecular scale, around 1-100 nanometers in size. In the 1990’s it was the darling of the science media here in America. When the most outrageous predictions didn’t come to pass, the public turned its attention to other topics, such as genetic engineering and space exploration. In reality, nanotech has become part of our lives and thus as invisible to us as water to a fish.

Richard Feynman, a renowned physicist, is credited with the origination of the idea in a talk he gave in 1959, though he did not call in nanotechnology. That term was coined in 1974 by Norio Taguchi, a professor at the Tokyo University of Science. The idea didn’t catch the public imagination until 1986 and the book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, by American engineer K. Eric Drexler. He proposed that manufacturing could be revolutionized by creating nanoscale “assemblers,” tiny machines which could replicate themselves and larger things.

Science fiction writers ran with the idea; a prime example is Neal Stephenson’s award-winning novel Diamond Age (1995), in which nanotech was a positive but disruptive technology. In Kathleen Goonan’s Queen City Jazz (1996) nano-machines run amok, turning whole cities into “gray goo.” An episode of Season 3 of Star Trek the Next Generation (circa 1990) featured a plague of microscopic silicon-based “nanites.” The worry of a nanotech has so far been unfounded. One of the biggest limitations of these tiny machines has been the difficulty of supplying energy at this scale; this has so far kept the doomsday scenarios at bay.

Though the technology doesn’t get nearly as much press these days as it did in the 1990’s, it’s become a critical part of our technology. The website of the US government’s Nano-Technology Initiative lists several widespread uses, most dealing with the creation of micro-electronics. It also mentions bio-engineering applications such as nano-particles that can cure influenza (see artist’s conception above.) Nanotech could eventually provide inexpensive cures for tough diseases such as cancer and HIV, though unfortunately, these are probably years away.

Though public attention is fickle, new ideas such as nano-technology take a considerable time to develop from conception to practical applications. Neither the extravagant promises nor the exaggerated threats of nano-scale engineering have come to fruition. Like all technologies, it has the potential for good or bad. Hopefully, scientists and engineers will make the right choices and allow us to banish diseases such as cancer from the earth.

The above illustration is from http://www.nano.gov/.

If you like small things, you’ll enjoy my short stories such as Fidelio’s Dilemma, available on Amazon.

 

SCIENCE SATURDAY: Razib Khan and the Controversy of Human Genomics

Razib Khan, scientific outlaw

Razib Khan, scientific outlaw

The science of genetics has added a fascinating dimension to the history of mankind. For example, we once thought that Neanderthal people went extinct. Now scientists believe that modern humans have Neanderthal genes, meaning that our ancestors got close and personal with their caveman cousins. It’s also fascinating to consider when humans first occupied what parts of the earth, and in what direction they migrated. New theories have provoked fierce debate about migrations to places like Australia and the Americas earlier than experts previously believed. Genetic analysis of human remains is one piece of this puzzle. Why is this branch of science not more popular than it is? I suspect the reason may be political.

For the last few months, I’ve been reading the Gene Expression Blog by Razib Khan at the alt media site unz.com. I’ll write more about that excellent site in an upcoming blog post. Khan is an avid reader and a prolific writer on evolution, history, religion, and philosophy. He also writes frequently about the field of personal genomics and controversial services such as 23andMe. Khan’s profile lists him as a graduate student in genomics at UC Davis. His column has renewed my dormant interest in human genetics and paleo-history.

The problem is, Khan doesn’t stick to the narrative. He engages with publications and groups that are politically incorrect. Last year the New York Times booted him off the editorial pages for that reason. The gossip site gawker.com had outed him for his association with allegedly “racist” sites takimag.com and vdare.com. That’s their loss and Unz’s gain. It gives me great satisfaction, however, that VDare and Taki’s Magazine are still going strong, but Gawker is no more.

It’s appalling to think that a smart, well-spoken fellow like Khan would be punished for his associations. I’m reminded of how the Catholic Church treated Galileo’s theories. Yes, many biologists speculate on the differences between human racial groups concerning average intelligence, health, stamina, etc. This may offend politically correct opinion. Yet I don’t think that scientists actually believe the propaganda that “race is an illusion” and that all groups are exactly equal in potential. If you think about it, the egalitarian view is counter-intuitive. As a progressive friend commented to me, concerning the differences between ethnicities, “Why would you think they’d all be the same?”

My point is that science shouldn’t make value judgments. Research gives us information, which we can use for good or evil, to help people or hurt them. You may ask, what good does it do for us to know how and where humans originated, and the differences between racial groups? We don’t know. Neither did the Pope Urban VIII at the time he censured Galileo. He couldn’t have foreseen space exploration and its benefits, yet his closed-mindedness could have prevented all of that.

Arlys’ and my book Miss Ione D and the Mayan Marvel takes a fanciful look at Mesoamerican paleontology. Check it out at https://www.amazon.com/Miss-Ione-Mayan-Marvel-Adventures-ebook/dp/B01G2TBBPU/

Science Saturday: Planet 9 in Outer Space

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It was a sad day in 2006 when our beloved 9th planet Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet. Pluto was always the problem child, but we loved it anyway. It was the smallest planet, whose orbit was inclined at 17 degrees to all the others. Even more troublesome, its orbit crossed that of Neptune, so that for part of its 300+ year orbit it was actually the 8th planet from the sun, rather than the 9th. (It will never collide with Neptune, thanks to that tilted orbit.) To top it all off, it was discovered here in Arizona.

Unfortunately, the rebel planet had to be demoted with the discovery of Eris and a half dozen other large objects out in the Kuiper Belt – because if Pluto remained a planet, all these newcomers would be. It was not easy to break the habit of thinking of 9 planets. The “Church of 9 Planets” in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would need a new name. Therefore it was a relief to hear that there was probably still a 9th planet out here – and this would have to be a decent size, several times bigger than Earth.

It’s ironic that Michael Brown, the astronomer who discovered Eris who jokingly calls himself “Pluto killer,” who along with colleague Konstantin Batygin, proposed the existence of a new Planet 9. Their reasoning was a suspicious alignment in the orbits of Kuiper-belt planetoids. (This is the same reasoning Percival Lowell used to initiate the search for Planet X that ended up finding Pluto.) Something massive had to be shepherding them into similar orbits, and they were too far away for Neptune to be responsible. Since then there’s been a major effort to find it, which is a challenge. It’s so far out and so dim it taxes the abilities of our biggest telescopes to find it.

Of course, the crazies have come out of the woodwork. I’ve seen numerous Internet articles proclaiming it as the legendary Nibiru, or death star, the dark planet that periodically sends comets toward the Earth causing mass extinctions. The idea of the Sun having a distant unseen companion is actually a respectable scientific theory, but the theoretical Planet 9 doesn’t seem big enough to fit that bill. Nor do astronomers expect any imminent threat to our planet.

The other issue is, what will we call this new planet? By convention, trans-Neptunian objects are named, like Pluto, after gods of the afterworld. (Eris is an exception, but the “goddess of chaos” theme was quite appropriate to what its discovery did to the world of astronomy.) Perhaps we should take a hint from Herman Melville and call it Ishmael.

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_E._Brown

Image from http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/planetx

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If you like reading about undiscovered planets and alien critters, you’ll like my books. Check them out on Amazon.com