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.

Reading the Comics, July 30, 2016: Learning Tools Edition


I thank Comic Strip Master Command for the steady pace of mathematically-themed comics this past week. It fit quite nicely with my schedule, which you might get hints about in weeks to come. Depends what I remember to write about. I did have to search a while for any unifying motif of this set. The idea of stuff you use to help learn turned up several times over, and that will do.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue threatened on the 24th to resume my least-liked part of reading comics for mathematics themes. This would be Grandma’s habit of forcing the kids to spend their last month of summer vacation doing arithmetic drills. I won’t say that computing numbers isn’t fun because I know what it’s like to work out how many seconds are in 50 years in your head. But that’s never what this sort of drill is about. The strip’s diverted from that subject, but it might come back to spoil the end of summer vacation. (I’m not positive what my least-liked part of the comics overall is. I suspect it might be the weird anti-participation-trophy bias comic strip writers have.)

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics reprint for the 25th is about the end of the universe. We’ve got several competing theories about how the universe is likely to turn out, several trillion years down the road. The difference between them is in the shape of space and how that shape is changing. I’ve mentioned sometimes the wonder of being able to tell something about a whole shape from local information, things we can tell without being far from a single point. The fate of the universe must be the greatest example of this. Considering how large the universe is and how little of it we will ever be able to send an instrument to, we measure the shape of space from a single point. And we can realistically project what will happen in unimaginably distant times. Admittedly, if we get it wrong, we’ll never know, which takes off some of the edge.

Dinosaur Comics reappears the 28th with some talk about number bases. It’s all fine and accurate enough, except for the suggestion that anyone would use base five for something other than explaining how bases work. I like learning about bases. When I was a kid this concept explained much to me about how our symbols for numbers work. It also helped appreciate that symbols are not these fixed or universal things. They’re our creations and ours to adapt for whatever reason we find convenient. In the past we’ve found bases as high as sixty to be convenient. (The division of angles into 360 degrees each of 60 minutes, each of those of 60 seconds, is an echo of that.) But when I was a kid doing alternate-base problems nobody knew what I was doing or why, except the mathematics teacher who said I might like the optional sections in the book. We only really need base ten, base two, and base sixteen, which might as well be base two written more compactly. The rest are toys, good for instruction and for fun. Sorry, base seven.

Scott Meyer’s Basic Instructions rerun for the 27th is about everyone’s favorite bit of intransitivity. Rock-Paper-Scissors and its related games are all about systems in which any two results can be decisive but any three might not be. This prospect turns up whenever there are three or more possible outcomes. And it doesn’t require a system to be irrational or random. Chaos and counterintuitive results just happen when there’s three of a thing.

I remember, and possibly you remember too, learning of a computer system that can consistently beat humans at Rock-Paper-Scissors. It manages to do that by the oldest of game theory exploits, cheating. Its sensors look for the twitches suggesting what a person is going to throw and then it changes its throw to beat that. I don’t know what that’s supposed to prove since anyone who’s played a Sid Meier’s Civilization game knows that computers already know how to cheat.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains, yes, you can be in my Reading The Comics post this week too. Don’t beg.

Bill Schorr’s The Grizzwells for the 28th is a resisted word problem joke. It doesn’t use the classic railroad or airplane forms, but it’s the same joke anyway.

'My drive to solve this [ a pie chart of the relationships between current, voltage, resistance, and power in an electrical circuit ] keeps getting interrupted by my desire to order a PIZZA'.
Benita Epstein’s Six Chix for the 29th of July, 2016. The pie chart’s valid, in case you need it, in which case you’re doing the mathematics of electric circuits. Current, voltage, resistance, and power all relate to one another in ways the chart makes clear once you know how to read it. Each of the quantities — I, V, R, or P — is equal to each of the expressions outside it. Pizza, meanwhile, is just a naturally funny word and thus appears in comic strips to amuse you.

Benita Epstein’s Six Chix for the 29th is probably familiar to the folks taking electronics. The chart is a compact map used as a mnemonic for the different relationships between the current (I), the voltage (V), the resistance (R), and the power (P) in a circuit. When I was a student we got this as two separate circles, one for current-voltage-resistance and one for power-current-voltage. Each was laid out like the T-and-O maps which pre-Renaissance Western Europe used to diagram the world. While I now see that as a convenient and useful tool, as a student, I was skeptical that it was any easier to use the mnemonic aid than it was to just remember “voltage equals current times resistance” and “power equals voltage times current”. I’ve always had an irrational suspicion of mnemonic devices. I’m trying to do better.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s Chuckle Brothers for the 30th is a return of the whiteboard full of symbols to represent deep thinking. The symbols don’t mean anything as equations, though that might be my limited perspective. And that also might represent the sketchy, shorthand way serious work is done. As an idea is sketched out weird bundles of symbols that don’t literally parse do appear. In a publishable paper this is all turned into neatly formatted and standard stuff. Or we introduce symbols with clear explanations of what they mean so that others can learn to read what we write. But for ourselves, in the heat of work, we’ll produce what looks like gibberish to others and that’s all right as long as we don’t forget what the gibberish means. Sometimes we do, but the gibberish typically helps us recapture a lost idea. (I offer the tale of a mathematician with pages of notes for a brilliant insight which she has to reconstruct from a lost memory to would-be short story writers looking for a Romantic hook.)

Reading the Comics, March 21, 2016: New Math And The NCAA Edition


Terri Libenson’s The Pajama Diaries for the 20th of March mentions, among “reasons for ice cream”, the stress of having “helped with New Math”. It’s a curious reference, to me. I expect it refers to the stress of how they teach arithmetic differently from how it was when you grew up. I expect that feeds any adult’s natural anxiety about having forgot, or never really been good at, arithmetic. Add to that the anxiety of not being able to help your child when you’re called on. And add to that the ever-present fear of looking like a fool. There’s plenty of reason to be anxious.

Among Mom's Reasons For Ice Cream: 'Helped with New Math'.
Terri Libenson’s The Pajama Diaries for the 20th of March, 2016.

Still, the reference to “New Math” is curious since, at least in the United States, that refers to a specific era. In the 1960s and 70s mathematics education saw a major revision, called the “New Math”. This revision tried many different approaches, but built around the theory that students should know why mathematics looks like it does. The hope was that in this way students wouldn’t just know what eight times seven was, but would agree that it made sense for this to be 56. The movement is, generally, regarded as a well-meant failure. The reasons are diverse, but many of them amount to it being very hard to explain why mathematics looks like it does. And it’s even harder to explain it to parents, who haven’t gone to school for years and aren’t going to go back to learn eight times seven. And it’s hard for many teachers, who often aren’t specialists in mathematics, to learn eight times seven in a new way either.

Still, the New Math was dead and buried in the United States by the 1980s. And more, Libenson is Canadian. I don’t know what educational fashions, and reform fashions, are like in Canada. I’m curious if Canadian parents or teachers could let me know, what is going on in reforming Canadian mathematics education? Is “New Math” a term of art in Canada now? Or did Libenson pick a term that would communicate efficiently “mathematics but not like I learned it”?

Rudolph Dirk’s The Katzenjammer Kids on the 20th reprinted the strip from the 5th of September, 1943. I mention it here because it contains an example of mathematics talk being used as signifier of great intelligence. The kids expound: “Now, der t’eory uf der twerpsicosis iss dot er sum uf circumvegetatium und der horizontal triggernometry iss equal to der … ” and that’s as far as it needs to go. It isn’t quite mathematics, but it is certainly using a painting of mathematics to make one look bright.

'Now der t'eory uf der twerpipsicosis iss dot der sum uf circumvegetatium und der horizontal triggernomery iss equal to der --- ' 'My, how smart you iss to know such big voids!'
Rudolph Dirk’s The Katzenjammer Kids for the 5th of September, 1943, and rerun the 20th of March, 2016. I know it’s a lot of text to read; I’m sorry.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons got its appearance in here the 20th. It’s got a student resisting the equivalent fractions idea. he kid notes that 1/2 might equal 2/4 and 4/8 and 8/16, but “the ones on the right feel like more bang for your buck”. The kid has a point. These are all the same number. It’s usually easiest to work with the smallest representation that means what you need. But they might convey their meanings differently. I get a different picture, at least, in speaking of “half the class not being done with the assignment” versus “16 of the 32 students aren’t done with the assignment”.

Charlie Podrebarac’s CowTown for the 20th of March claims Charlie could “literally paper the Earth” with losing NCAA brackets. As I make it out, he’s right. There are 263 possible NCAA brackets, because there are 63 matches in the college basketball tournament. All but one of these are losing. If each bracket fits on one sheet of paper — well, how big is a sheet of paper? If each bracket is on a sheet of A4-size paper, then, each page is 1/16th of a square meter. This is easy to work with. Unfortunately, if Charlie cares about the NCAA college basketball tournament, he’s probably in the United States. So he would print out on paper that’s 8 ½ inches by 11 inches. That’s not quite 1/16th of a square meter or any other convenient-to-work-with size. It’s 93.5 square inches but what good is that?

Well, I will pretend that the 8 ½ by 11 inch paper is close enough to A4. It’s going to turn out not to matter. 263 is 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. Subtract one and we have 9,223,372,036,854,775,807. Big difference. Multiply this by one-sixteenth of a square meter and we have about 576,460,752,000,000,000 square meters of paper. I’m rounding off because it is beyond ridiculous that I didn’t before. The surface area of the Earth is about 510,000,000,000,000 square meters. So if Bob picked every possible losing bracket he could indeed literally paper the Earth a thousand times over and have some paper to spare.

T Shepherd’s gentle and sweet Snow Sez for the 21st of March is a bit of humor about addition and the limits of what it can tell us.

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 21st of March is a Guy Walks Into A Bar that depends on non-base-ten arithmetic for its punch line. I’m amused. I learned about different bases as a kid, in the warm glow of the New Math. The different bases and how they changed what arithmetic looked like enchanted me. Today I know there’s not much need for bases besides ten (normal mathematics), two (used by computers), and sixteen (used by people dealing with computers). (Base sixteen converts easily to base two, so people can understand what the computer is actually doing, while being much more compact, so people don’t have to write out prodigiously long sequences of digits.) But for a while there you can play around with base five or base twelve or, as a horse might, base four. It can help you better appreciate how much thought there is behind something as straightforward as “10”.