Randomness? (Eureka)
August 8, 2007

Heard on Eureka last night:

Random events do tend to cluster together…

I’m hoping some of my scientific readers can enlighten me, but to me, that sounds like a self-contradictory quote.

Another great episode, as usual, set at the high school science fair. (In a town full of geniuses and their genius kids, that’s scary.) I appreciated seeing another side to the sheriff’s daughter Zoe, too. She’s been growing on me, especially after the small storyline with her mother.

As someone who was termed a smart kid, the IQ comparisons reminded me of my time in genius school. I know a lot of it is atmosphere — children told they’re brilliant act that way — but at the same time, I couldn’t help comparing my scores to those mentioned on the show. Ah, vanity.

5 Responses  
Joshua writes:  

The only thing I can think of, other than the character being ironic, is that truly random events will tend to bunch up more than people think they will. For instance, if you flip a fair coin a whole bunch of times you will get enough long stretches of heads in a row to surprise most people, who think of random as being something more like “uniformly distributed.” Way back in the day they used to generate random numbers for scientific and statistical applications by having row after row of people sitting at desks with ten-sided dice and rolling them and recording the results, which were then published in tables and sold. It turns out (or so the story goes) that a lot of these tables were biased, because the people doing the rolling were throwing out long sequences of the same number, or obvious patterns like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…instead of faithfully writing them down, because they thought they weren’t “random” enough!

Jer writes:  

I caught that last night too. I figured some writer screwed up their technobabble vocabulary and forgot what “random” means. It might have made a bit more sense if he’d said “random events CAN cluster together”, which is what we call “coincidence” (and what I think the writers were driving at in that exchange).

I enjoyed the episode, but I feel like the show is kind of treading water with the character relationships this season – they had a great mix on the last few episodes last season and this season it feels to me like the writers are going out of their way to try to keep everything more or less static.

Nat Gertler writes:  

I’m not an expert in randomness (though looking around, I seem to generate a lot of it… well, that’s really more chaos), but Joshua’s got it right. If you deal with randomness, you will expect to find clusters not because randomness generates clusters but because true randomness fails to avoid clusters, and thus clusters occur.
If you Google “Clustering Illusion”, you’ll find explanations about the tendency of humans to note clusters and then assume non-randomness in random situations.

Johanna writes:  

Ah, so it’s more about perception, whether seeing patterns or only noticing the clumps.

Jer, I just got the DVD set, and I’m looking forward to rewatching them to catch more of the relationship development. It doesn’t surprise me that season enders will be more powerful than regular ol’ episodes, though.

Have you noticed that the number of official regulars, based on the credits, has decreased?

Dan writes:  

There do tend to be clusters. In fact, one can expect to find at least one cluster of Lg(N) of the same outcome in any series of N random Bernoulli trials. This is counterintuitive, and is actually a cool party trick! Tell one person to flip a coin 30 times and write the outcomes, and another person to write down 30 random Heads or Tails, both in secret. Then have both present you with the lists. You can pick out which was done by the human, because the coin will give a string of 5 heads or tails in a row and the human has a “different” idea of random…


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