St. Olaf College | News

Richey to deliver fall Mellby Lecture on randomness

RicheyMatt400x475On a college campus, it’s not unusual to hear students exclaim “That’s so random!” to describe everything from running into an old friend to being surprised by the material on a midterm.

But what does it actually mean to say that something is “random”?

In this fall’s Mellby Lecture, St. Olaf College Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science Matthew Richey will discuss the slippery definition of randomness and what “random” actually means in mathematical terms. He’ll even conduct some applications of randomness in real time.

Richey’s November 10 lecture, titled Take What You Have Gathered From Coincidence: Understanding and Using Randomness, will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Viking Theater. It will be streamed and archived online.

“Mathematicians have thought a lot about randomness and cleared out the clutter, but there are still differences of what constitutes as randomness and what it means to be random,” Richey says.

In terms of statistics, randomness is defined as a process of selection in which each item of a set has an equal probability of being chosen.

Randomness has been a part of human history as far back as the Greeks and Romans, but in those days it wasn’t considered random — it was fate. The future was thought to be predetermined.

“It’s possible we understand randomness as best as we can, but the corner has been turned and now we actually use randomness in a proactive way,” says Richey.

In a modern era where it is not possible to sift through the immense amount of data and information available, randomness has become very valuable.

For example, Siri — the “intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator” used on many Apple phones and tablets — uses randomness to provide information. When spoken to, Siri receives a bunch of bytes through a processor that randomly searches for the alignment of bytes that most matches the words spoken.

Richey has taught courses in pure and applied mathematics, computer science, and statistics. He has supervised numerous undergraduate research projects in areas that include neural networks, statistical modeling, and, his favorite, the mathematics of baseball.

Richey earned his bachelor of arts degree from Kenyon College in 1981 and his masters of arts and Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Dartmouth College in 1983 and 1985, respectively. He joined the Mathematics Department at St. Olaf in 1986.

The Mellby Lectures
The annual Mellby Lectures are named in remembrance of St. Olaf faculty member Carl A. Mellby and were established in 1983 to give professors the opportunity to share their research with the public. Mellby, known as “the father of social sciences” at St. Olaf, started the first courses in economics, sociology, political science, and art history at the college. He was a professor and administrator from 1901 to 1949, taught Greek, German, French, religion, and philosophy, and is credited with creating the college’s honor system.