Peter Bierhorst Loves Random Numbers

Dr. Peter Bierhorst – The scientist who loves randomness

Just a few months ago a mind-blowing article on random number generation was published in Nature.

Researchers were able to generate random numbers using entangled photons, and then prove that the numbers were in fact random. This difficult task was spearheaded by Dr. Peter Bierhorst who is a postdoc working with both NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and the University of Colorado Boulder.

But Dr. Bierhorst did not always think of himself stepping into the role of being a postdoc, or running a lab.

His journey to NIST took a long and winding path. 

In high school he excelled at math, to the point of being a prodigy, eventually attending Harvard for his undergraduate degree. But when I asked him if there was a point in his life that he knew he loved math, he couldn’t think of one – pointing to the idea that it really would have been impossible as a high school student to differentiate any love of math with enjoying the massive amounts of positive feedback he got for performing well in the subject.

Burnt Out

Ultimately his time at Harvard left him burnt out and not really knowing what he wanted to do.

“If you had asked me if I wanted to go to graduate school I would have said no without skipping a beat.”

Instead of pursuing challenging questions right out of undergrad Dr. Bierhorst opted instead to move to Portland and lead the bohemian life of biking, unstructured schedules, and tutoring to pay the bills. And while this way of life had little constraints, he found it mind-numbing after a time and realized that he was increasingly being drawn back into his math textbooks.

A New Challenge

The desire for a challenge brought him first to Portland State University to dabble in math classes, and then to Tulane for his Masters and Doctoral degrees, but not without its own personal struggles.

While his intellectual curiosity was growing, so were his insecurities at being successful in a field driven by passion, hard work, and reputation. “You’re always stacking yourself up against these guys” he states, “and you think, yeah, I’m not good enough.”

During his studies, he struggled with one big item – reading research papers.

Research papers are the published articles that scientists present to various journals that outline their work. These papers discuss the intricate details of the methods used, show the mathematical theories involved, and discuss their findings, often from a variety of viewpoints.

“I just could not make heads or tails of research papers for the life of me. They seemed incredibly dense and it was as if the person writing them had a deeper understanding of the fields than maybe I could even ever have.”

Understanding the power of research papers

After arduously trudging through piles of articles he finally began to understand the papers, but his struggles moved deeper – how did the researchers know to even study the topic of the paper? How did they know it was important?

It was only after years and years of going through the papers that he began to read them semi-quickly and understand the context and implications. Now, he even reviews papers and judges the quality, and importance, of the science that comes across his desk for a scientific journal.

That is when he realized…

“You actually are good enough”

Dr. Bierhorst states someone ahead of you, or with more knowledge or accolades “can’t work on everything. They are just going to pick some things that are interesting to them, and work on those.”

There was a point where he realized that “you’re not competing with them anymore. There’s so much science that needs to be done. You don’t have to be at the top of the top.”

Of course, after years of work and effort, now he is at the top of the top in his field. Dr. Peter Bierhorst studies randomness, and his goal for the past few years has been to create the ultimate random number generator. 

What is Randomness?

One might think it was easy to generate random numbers. Just pull numbered balls out of a bag like a lottery, or roll a handful of dice – that would give you a random set of numbers, right?

Even the roll of a dice is not random.

While many of us think of random events are those chosen without method or conscious decision, true randomness also has an element of unpredictability. A truly random set of numbers would be a set that no matter the circumstances the smartest, most dedicated, most equipped people on the planet could not predict the outcome.

We could, theoretically, measure the speed, rotation, and bounce of the dice to anticipate the outcome. The same goes for a coin flip. The flip of a coin is governed by gravity (a constant), the force your thumb exerts, the wind, the distance to the ground, the rate of flip, etc. Many of these ‘variables’ can actually be measured, allowing us to know the result before the coin has finished flipping.

But what of a truly random number?

Is it possible to generate a random number that is mathematically impossible to anticipate ahead of time?

His team just did. They created a truly random series of digits.

By using lasers to entangle photons such that one photon is spin up, and the other is spin down, researchers could use one string of the photons to test if anyone else had tried to intercept (or worse, did intercept) their data, and use the other string to create binary numbers. The zeroes and ones, generated from whether the photon was spin up or spin down, can be translated into digits using an ASCII code table, which then ultimately becomes a series of truly random digits. 

That is, no one can measure, or model, the outcome – unless they can travel faster than the speed of light. That caveat is a foundation to much of modern physics and mathematics, which basically puts the kibosh on anyone being able to easily hack into your computer, or more importantly, the computer of your bank.

These random numbers aren’t just for passwords and technological protections, although that is by far the biggest use. They can also be used by businesses or governments to randomly draw names. For example, to assign court cases to judges, or to determine what accounts get audited. 

To Professorship and Beyond

And now, instead of a meandering path with no real guidance, Dr. Peter Bierhorst feels like he knows his next steps and is confident in where he is headed – to an assistant professorship at the University of New Orleans.

To learn more about Dr. Bierhorst’s work, check out his laboratory’s website at www.colorado.edu/faculty/bierhorst/ or his article in Nature.

Check out our random number generator that you can use at home using entangled magnets, instead of entangled photons.

nist random number generator

Dig deeper into the science and implications of this discovery.

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