The End 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Normal Numbers


Today’s A To Z term is another of gaurish’s requests. It’s also a fun one so I’m glad to have reason to write about it.

Normal Numbers

A normal number is any real number you never heard of.

Yeah, that’s not what we say a normal number is. But that’s what a normal number is. If we could imagine the real numbers to be a stream, and that we could reach into it and pluck out a water-drop that was a single number, we know what we would likely pick. It would be an irrational number. It would be a transcendental number. And it would be a normal number.

We know normal numbers — or we would, anyway — by looking at their representation in digits. For example, π is a number that starts out 3.1415926535897931159979634685441851615905 and so on forever. Look at those digits. Some of them are 1’s. How many? How many are 2’s? How many are 3’s? Are there more than you would expect? Are there fewer? What would you expect?

Expect. That’s the key. What should we expect in the digits of any number? The numbers we work with don’t offer much help. A whole number, like 2? That has a decimal representation of a single ‘2’ and infinitely many zeroes past the decimal point. Two and a half? A single ‘2, a single ‘5’, and then infinitely many zeroes past the decimal point. One-seventh? Well, we get infinitely many 1’s, 4’s, 2’s, 8’s, 5’s, and 7’s. Never any 3’s, nor any 0’s, nor 6’s or 9’s. This doesn’t tell us anything about how often we would expect ‘8’ to appear in the digits of π.

In an normal number we get all the decimal digits. And we get each of them about one-tenth of the time. If all we had was a chart of how often digits turn up we couldn’t tell the summary of one normal number from the summary of any other normal number. Nor could we tell either from the summary of a perfectly uniform randomly drawn number.

It goes beyond single digits, though. Look at pairs of digits. How often does ’14’ turn up in the digits of a normal number? … Well, something like once for every hundred pairs of digits you draw from the random number. Look at triplets of digits. ‘141’ should turn up about once in every thousand sets of three digits. ‘1415’ should turn up about once in every ten thousand sets of four digits. Any finite string of digits should turn up, and exactly as often as any other finite string of digits.

That’s in the full representation. If you look at all the infinitely many digits the normal number has to offer. If all you have is a slice then some digits are going to be more common and some less common. That’s similar to how if you fairly toss a coin (say) forty times, there’s a good chance you’ll get tails something other than exactly twenty times. Look at the first 35 or so digits of π there’s not a zero to be found. But as you survey more digits you get closer and closer to the expected average frequency. It’s the same way coin flips get closer and closer to 50 percent tails. Zero is a rarity in the first 35 digits. It’s about one-tenth of the first 3500 digits.

The digits of a specific number are not random, not if we know what the number is. But we can be presented with a subset of its digits and have no good way of guessing what the next digit might be. That is getting into the same strange territory in which we can speak about the “chance” of a month having a Friday the 13th even though the appearances of Fridays the 13th have absolutely no randomness to them.

This has staggering implications. Some of them inspire an argument in science fiction Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written every two years or so. Probably it does so in other venues; Usenet is just my first home and love for this. In a minor point in Carl Sagan’s novel Cosmos possibly-imaginary aliens reveal there’s a pattern hidden in the digits of π. (It’s not in the movie version, which is a shame. But to include it would require people watching a computer. So that could not make for a good movie scene, we now know.) Look far enough into π, says the book, and there’s suddenly a string of digits that are nearly all zeroes, interrupted with a few ones. Arrange the zeroes and ones into a rectangle and it draws a pixel-art circle. And the aliens don’t know how something astounding like that could be.

Nonsense, respond the kind of science fiction reader that likes to identify what the nonsense in science fiction stories is. (Spoiler: it’s the science. In this case, the mathematics too.) In a normal number every finite string of digits appears. It would be truly astounding if there weren’t an encoded circle in the digits of π. Indeed, it would be impossible for there not to be infinitely many circles of every possible size encoded in every possible way in the digits of π. If the aliens are amazed by that they would be amazed to find how every triangle has three corners.

I’m a more forgiving reader. And I’ll give Sagan this amazingness. I have two reasons. The first reason is on the grounds of discoverability. Yes, the digits of a normal number will have in them every possible finite “message” encoded every possible way. (I put the quotes around “message” because it feels like an abuse to call something a message if it has no sender. But it’s hard to not see as a “message” something that seems to mean something, since we live in an era that accepts the Death of the Author as a concept at least.) Pick your classic cypher `1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C’ and so on, and take any normal number. If you look far enough into its digits you will find every message you might ever wish to send, every book you could read. Every normal number holds Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel, and almost every real number is a normal number.

But. The key there is if you look far enough. Look above; the first 35 or so digits of π have no 0’s, when you would expect three or four of them. There’s no 22’s, even though that number has as much right to appear as does 15, which gets in at least twice that I see. And we will only ever know finitely many digits of π. It may be staggeringly many digits, sure. It already is. But it will never be enough to be confident that a circle, or any other long enough “message”, must appear. It is staggering that a detectable “message” that long should be in the tiny slice of digits that we might ever get to see.

And it’s harder than that. Sagan’s book says the circle appears in whatever base π gets represented in. So not only does the aliens’ circle pop up in base ten, but also in base two and base sixteen and all the other, even less important bases. The circle happening to appear in the accessible digits of π might be an imaginable coincidence in some base. There’s infinitely many bases, one of them has to be lucky, right? But to appear in the accessible digits of π in every one of them? That’s staggeringly impossible. I say the aliens are correct to be amazed.

Now to my second reason to side with the book. It’s true that any normal number will have any “message” contained in it. So who says that π is a normal number?

We think it is. It looks like a normal number. We have figured out many, many digits of π and they’re distributed the way we would expect from a normal number. And we know that nearly all real numbers are normal numbers. If I had to put money on it I would bet π is normal. It’s the clearly safe bet. But nobody has ever proved that it is, nor that it isn’t. Whether π is normal or not is a fit subject for conjecture. A writer of science fiction may suppose anything she likes about its normality without current knowledge saying she’s wrong.

It’s easy to imagine numbers that aren’t normal. Rational numbers aren’t, for example. If you followed my instructions and made your own transcendental number then you made a non-normal number. It’s possible that π should be non-normal. The first thirty million digits or so look good, though, if you think normal is good. But what’s thirty million against infinitely many possible counterexamples? For all we know, there comes a time when π runs out of interesting-looking digits and turns into an unpredictable little fluttering between 6 and 8.

It’s hard to prove that any numbers we’d like to know about are normal. We don’t know about π. We don’t know about e, the base of the natural logarithm. We don’t know about the natural logarithm of 2. There is a proof that the square root of two (and other non-square whole numbers, like 3 or 5) is normal in base two. But my understanding is it’s a nonstandard approach that isn’t quite satisfactory to experts in the field. I’m not expert so I can’t say why it isn’t quite satisfactory. If the proof’s authors or grad students wish to quarrel with my characterization I’m happy to give space for their rebuttal.

It’s much the way transcendental numbers were in the 19th century. We understand there to be this class of numbers that comprises nearly every number. We just don’t have many examples. But we’re still short on examples of transcendental numbers. Maybe we’re not that badly off with normal numbers.

We can construct normal numbers. For example, there’s the Champernowne Constant. It’s the number you would make if you wanted to show you could make a normal number. It’s 0.12345678910111213141516171819202122232425 and I bet you can imagine how that develops from that point. (David Gawen Champernowne proved it was normal, which is the hard part.) There’s other ways to build normal numbers too, if you like. But those numbers aren’t of any interest except that we know them to be normal.

Mere normality is tied to a base. A number might be normal in base ten (the way normal people write numbers) but not in base two or base sixteen (which computers and people working on computers use). It might be normal in base twelve, used by nobody except mathematics popularizers of the 1960s explaining bases, but not normal in base ten. There can be numbers normal in every base. They’re called “absolutely normal”. Nearly all real numbers are absolutely normal. Wacław Sierpiński constructed the first known absolutely normal number in 1917. If you got in on the fractals boom of the 80s and 90s you know his name, although without the Polish spelling. He did stuff with gaskets and curves and carpets you wouldn’t believe. I’ve never seen Sierpiński’s construction of an absolutely normal number. From my references I’m not sure if we know how to construct any other absolutely normal numbers.

So that is the strange state of things. Nearly every real number is normal. Nearly every number is absolutely normal. We know a couple normal numbers. We know at least one absolutely normal number. But we haven’t (to my knowledge) proved any number that’s otherwise interesting is also a normal number. This is why I say: a normal number is any real number you never heard of.

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