The Random Element

June 12, 2009

I left home on my 21st birthday, with a shiny new diploma in my pocket and a firm determination to break into the burgeoning new world of electronics. That was before transistors and lasers, even before public television, but there was a kind of roiling of the waters, as if a mighty giant were about to emerge, and I wanted to be a part of it.

Minutes before I left, my father emerged from his study and beckoned me in. He was then about 60, a Victorian to his fingertips, who occupied the chair of natural sciences at Kings, and who was always so wholly engrossed in developing the field of statistical inference that he had little time for his family. But evidently my mother had told him he would probably never see me again, and now he was prepared to give me five minutes of his time.

“My boy,” he said, “the study of mathematics is not conducive to the establishment of a fortune, so you will have to await your patrimony until I am gone. But I will give you now a piece of advice that I have found useful and that I trust will help you find your way in the world. It is: ‘When anything happens that cannot be undone, it is always attributable to the introduction of a random element, akin to that introduced by shuffling.’”

With that, he rested his hand briefly on my shoulder and then turned back to his desk. I didn’t bother to say good-bye, as I knew his attention was already elsewhere, and I still regret that I slammed the front door as I left, muttering under my breath about parsimonious prigs.

I spent the next couple of years learning my trade, only to find that the field was developing so fast it looked like I would never be able to draw breath, and I began to realize the best I could do was to master a small part of it. For the first time, I recalled my father’s last words to me and began to wonder what they meant. Eventually, I figured he was recommending the study of statistics, so, if only to save something from the wreck of our relationship, I started to read up on the subject.

Fortunately, his real gift to me was what I can only call a friendship with math. I could see how the new Boolean algebra could be used to make computers undertake the endless calculations needed to utilize complex mathematical models: of fluid flow in oil reservoirs, of the flow of air over airplane wings and a thousand other hitherto incalculable processes.

Right at that time, my father died and I inherited his notes on statistical inference. He had demonstrated that the huge body of mathematics developed to describe random processes could be applied, within limits, to virtually any causal relationship. Bingo! I never looked back, and was soon advising a hundred corporations how to predict performance, of ships and cars, airplanes and dams, without ever spending a dime on construction.

So I take back what I said about Dad; he gave me the world, though he never knew it.

 

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