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It is an unknown that we have been raised for thousands of years … Is everything predetermined in the universe or are there things that happen randomly?
The BBC radio program “The curious cases of Rutherford and Fry”, which is dedicated to answer questions sent by the audience, devoted a recent chapter to resolve this question that afflicted several listeners.
Already from ancient Greece there were theories about this complex issue.
Five centuries before Christ, the philosopher and mathematician Democritus posed a hypothesis about it.
The thinker, who became famous because he was the first to postulate that matter was made up of small atoms, believed that the universe worked like a clock and nothing happened in a fortuitous way.
“He thought that things seem random to us simply because we live in a state of incomplete knowledge,” the mathematician Colva Roney-Dougal of the University of St. Andrew in Scotland explained to the BBC.
About a century later, another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, postulated just the opposite: that the universe did not work like a clock and that arbitrariness was, in fact, an intrinsic part of reality because atoms move randomly.
Some two thousand years later, in the eighteenth century, the French astronomer, physicist and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace again approached positions with Democritus about a predetermined universe.
“Laplace believed that there was a demon who knew the position and direction of each piece of the universe and argued that if he could have all that information then this demon would know exactly what would happen in the universe, forever,” says Roney-Dougal.
This concept presaged the idea of determinism, a philosophical doctrine according to which every event is causally determined by the cause-consequence chain and, consequently, none of our acts is free, but everything is pre-established.
Also Christianity has maintained over time that as God is almighty, there can be no chance event because God would know what was going to happen.
Dice and computers
But what about certain actions that seem totally left to chance?
Roll dice, for example . Is it possible to predetermine how they will fall?
Although it sounds incredible, the Roney-Dougal mathematician says yes.
“If I knew when you were going to roll the dice the exact position of your hand and how fast you were going to throw them and the exact weight of the dice and all this kind of information could, in theory, predict how they would fall,” he said.
That is, the rules of Newtonian physics that govern an action such as rolling dice are deterministic.
But what about computers? For example, the computer systems of banks, which use a cryptography system that generates supposedly random numbers to protect our information.
As technology journalist Bill Thompson explains, these numbers are actually “pseudo-random” .
“Computers are designed to be predictable,” he told the BBC. That is why the numbers generated, created by mixing a base number with an algorithm, are not genuinely 100% random.
To make them more difficult to predict, experts have designed systems that seek to maximize arbitrariness and some of them are quite bizarre.
One of the most striking systems was a hardware called Lavarand that was based on the so-called lava lamps, which generate a movement of liquid wax that resembles lava flowing.
This fluid constantly forms new drops or wax balls that seem to form unpredictably.
This is what made them interesting for the Silicon Graphics experts, system designers.
They took pictures of the patterns made by the floating material and extracted random data from those images, using that figure as a basis to generate other numbers.
Still today there is a technology company in San Francisco that continues to use the Lavarand system and displays around 80 lava lamps in its lobby that are monitored by cameras.
The firm manages the security of recognized companies such as Uber and Fitbit.
The true randomness
Is there something that is really completely random?
Yes: it is called “quantum randomness” and it is the unpredictable movement that occurs at subatomic levels .
The physicist Jim Al-Khalili explained it to the BBC.
“Quantum mechanics describes a subatomic world that is random, I think it was very early in the early twentieth century, when the world of atoms was discovered, that it was seen that they behaved in a way that could not be described by the existing theories. “
That is, while Newton’s mechanics can predict how a die we throw will fall, it can not predict how an atom will act.
For example, “it does not explain how an atom can be in two places at the same time or how it can not have a definitive location,” says Al-Khalili.
“There really is what we call an indetermination at the heart of the subatomic world,” says the physicist.
Conclusion: many of the things we consider fortuitous actually are not , because they can be predicted with enough information.
However, if we look at the world from the smallest perspective of all there we will find true chance (as Epicurus anticipated 2,300 years ago!).