McGill University’s main campus is located in downtown Montreal, at the foot of the Mont Royal hill, the city’s principal landmark. Just beyond the semicircular stone-and-iron entrance gate and on the right sits Burnside Hall, a box-shaped concrete building housing the mathematics and statistics department.
At two o’clock on a sunny afternoon in mid-April 1998, Burnside Hall’s main auditorium was almost packed, even though the lecture was not scheduled to start until 3:30. The speaker’s reputation had attracted an unusually large crowd for a mathematics talk. Its title, “Randomness at the Heart of Mathematics,” had aroused the interest of local and out-of-town mathematicians and computer scientists, who suspected that Norton Thorp would announce a breakthrough in the generation of random numbers, a subject central to the computer simulation of real-world phenomena.
By the time Andy Stone stepped on stage to introduce a speaker who needed no introduction, every available seat and standing space in the auditorium was occupied. Johanna Davidson was sitting in one of the front rows. She had arrived early, hoping that Andy would introduce her to his famous guest and she could have him sign her copy of Life of a Genius, his recently published biography. But her former teacher was too busy looking after the VIPs invited to the talk, and she obviously was not among them.
Norton Thorp was an artful speaker, and he knew how to structure his lectures in order to maintain the interest of his audience. He would