The Future Is Here

Are you seeing patterns in numbers everywhere? You're not crazy - it's Benford's Law.

Pick any large set of random data you like. Look at the first digit of all the numbers. You're going to see a lot of ones. It's not just a coincidence. It's the law.

Benford's Law was discovered by Simon Newcomb, who was thumbing through a book of logarithmic tables. He noticed that the pages which contained tables of the digits beginning with low numbers were far more worn than the ones beginning with hi numbers. In modern times, that would just mean that people started with the low numbers and had wiped the pizza grease off their hands by the time they got to the higher ones. Since it was 1881, though, Newcomb figured that the low numbers were used far more often than the high numbers. Since the book was in a library, it had presumably been used by a random assortment of people for a random assortment of problems. Newcomb found other books, in other libraries were worn in a similar way.

Clearly, people needed data on numbers beginning with low numbers more than they did high numbers. That didn't make sense. If the world is random, the beginning digit of the numbers looked up to describe the world should be the same way. Digits one through nine should each be used 11 percent of the time, and the book's pages should all be equally worn.

They aren't, and they weren't.

The digit ‘one' is likely to begin any number based on a survey of real thing thirty percent of the time. Frank Benford was the gentleman who actually got his name put lastingly on the law, rediscovered this trend, and he broadened the amount of evidence to support it. Among the data he gathered was newspaper circulation, river area, death rates and the addresses of people listed in the book "American Men of Science." One appeared roughly 30 percent of the time. More than that, low digits were far more likely to appear than high digits in the leftmost place of any number.