Readers Write In #176: Heads or Tails, Random thoughts on Randomness

Posted on May 14, 2020


(by Sundaresh Raja)

Language, whether it is spoken by the commoners or by the pseudo-intellectuals, is always interspersed with terms and definitions of words whose meaning in entirety one is not cognizant of. A word may have an inherent reference to a concept or the word in itself maybe a concept; at times we must dwell upon the words that mean more than what they appear to mean, or what more they could appear to mean than what is intended to mean.


The word random. Have we ever wondered what it actually means? The word has been hopping around tongues of people who seem to use it with a near-blatant disregard that one wonders if language is just a means for an in-the-moment communication, when one is not facing an academic audience. The usage of the word has probably become more random than the randomness implied by the word itself.

Does randomness refer to what you do not know in certainty? Or does it refer to the lack of predictability in general? Or does it refer to something beyond?

From the time the mint came into operation, or maybe from the time the humankind sought to make coins that weren’t identical on either side, we must have been tossing these round little pieces of metal. Heads or tails; one never knew for sure which side of the coin would brave itself to have a head-on collision with the ground. You never know what side of the coin ‘God’ wants you to see. Or do you? Well, actually you do. Simple physics would tell you so. A formula can be arrived at which predicts the outcome based on the speed of your thumb, the side of the coin that is facing up before the toss, the height at which the coin is released, the weight of the coin which would subsequently determine its revolutions per second, the gravitational force at the venue and so on. Ironically (or not so ironically), scientists themselves have not been thrifty in the use of the word random, when referring to the toss of a coin. Do they mean it? Or is it just that we have been lazy enough to do the calculations every time we toss a coin and that therefore it is best to christen the event ‘random’?

What’s the fuss all about?

Well, the fuss is that we have a series of questions to answer or rather ponder about. Are there greater implications? Is randomness is what is sometimes being called God? What would happen on the day we choose to make the calculations that go behind the toss of a coin and are able to get the desired outcome every time we toss a coin, and hence remove the randomness? Or would we still call it random owing to the fact that the release speed of the thumb at the toss may not be actually easy to control? Can practice help in such a control? If yes, we have eliminated randomness and then comes the question “Is God in our hands now?”. If no, we ask ourselves “Is God the one behind the speed of our thumb and therefore behind the outcome of the toss of a coin?” If the speed can be controlled, what about other events in one’s life? Is this question too far-fetched? Or is it that the event of a coin being tossed itself is not guaranteed to happen due to uncertainty? How does one know that one can toss a coin before one’s breath leaves the body? How much certain we are of the next event in our life, our next action in the subsequent fraction of a second? Isn’t randomness just a word that will assume a temporary meaning based on how much control we have established as humans on the events in life? Isn’t it such that either everything is random or everything is not? Or is there a balance of random and certain events?

It could be rather intriguing to ponder over all these questions, but one must importantly note that what we refer to as randomness is seldom what we intend to refer to by using that word. Now, I am about to leave the readers quite randomly. Or should I have made a calculated decision about when to leave you to think over it?