Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 10th sees T-Rex pondering the point of solitaire. As he notes, there’s the weird aspect of solitaires that many of them can’t be won, even if you play perfectly. This comes close, without mentioning, an important event in numerical mathematics. So let me mention it.

There have always been things we could compute by random experiments. The digits of π, for example, if we’re willing to work at it. The catch is that this takes a lot of work. So we did not do much of this before we had computers, which are able to do a lot of work for the cost of electricity. There is a deep irony in this, since computers are — despite appearances — deterministic. They cannot do anything unpredictable. We have to provide random numbers, somehow. Or numbers that look enough like random numbers that we won’t make a grave error by using them.

Many of these techniques are known as Monte Carlo methods. These were developed in the 1940s. Stanislaw Ulam described convalescing from an illness, and playing a lot of solitaire. He pondered particularly the chance of winning a Canfield solitaire, a kind of game I have never heard of outside this anecdote. There seemed no way to work out this problem by reason alone. But he could imagine doing it in simulation, and with John von Neumann began calculating. Nicholas Metropolis gave it the gambling name, although something like that would be hard to resist. This is far from the only game that’s inspired useful mathematics. It is a good one, though.