Joys of Noise

In engineering, uncertainty is usually as welcome as sand in a salad. The development of digital technologies, from the alphabet to the DVD, has been driven in large part by the desire to eliminate random fluctuations, or noise, inherent in analog systems like speech or VHS tapes. But randomness also has a special ability to make some systems work better. Here are five cases where a little chaos is a critical part of the plan:

Stochastic Resonance

Scientists who make sensitive detectors often go to extreme lengths to eliminate noise. If they are trying to spot neutrinos, for example, they’ll build their detector at the bottom of a mine to stop the results from being swamped by regular cosmic radiation. But there are times when adding noise is the only way to pick up a weak periodic signal.

This phenomenon is called stochastic resonance, and it works something like this: Imagine you’re trying to count the number of waves at the seashore, and your detector is a wall built across the middle of a beach. The height of the wall represents the threshold of detection: Only if water washes over the top of the wall will it be registered. But our imaginary wall is high enough that the swell of the water never quite rises to the top of the wall. Adding noise is like adding some rapidly changing wind—it whips up waves in a random pattern. With the right amount and right variation of wind, when

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