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Quotations in Context: Coveyou

Michael Molinsky (University of Maine at Farmington)


“The generation of random numbers is too important to be left to chance.”

In 1967, the annual meeting of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics was held in Washington, DC. The program for the meeting included a symposium on applied probability and Monte Carlo methods, which was sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. As part of the symposium, Robert Coveyou from Oak Ridge National Laboratory presented an invited paper entitled “The Mathematics of Random Number Generators.” A revised version of the paper was included in Studies in Applied Mathematics 3, published by SIAM in 1969. The paper evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of random number generators, specifically those methods that could be easily implemented by computer.

Photograph of Robert Coveyou.
Photograph of Coveyou. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Although the title of the original talk was somewhat prosaic, the revised, published version of the paper was given the more humorous title, “Random Number Generation is too Important to be Left to Chance” [Coveyou 1969, p. 70]. This title appears to be the source of the more common, slightly paraphrased statement that appears at the beginning of this column, since the author never used any similar wording throughout the body of the paper. So in the case of this quotation, there is in a sense no surrounding context; instead, it appears to have been intended as a clever, eye-catching title to draw the reader into the paper.

There are other flashes of humor throughout the paper. For example, in Section 5.7, when a random set element has to be selected, the author states, “Choose a  \({\Sigma}\) \({\in}\) \(K^{\infty}\). (How? Don’t ask!)” [Coveyou 1969, p. 84].

Although I have seen the paraphrased version of Coveyou’s paper title in many mathematical sources, I actually first ran across it in the online “space opera” comic Schlock Mercenary by artist and writer Howard Tayler. It appeared in the strip on May 28, 2003, where the quotation is attributed to an “ancient Earth mathematician” (the comic is set in the 31st century). Below the strip, the author provided the following commentary:

In 1969, Robert Coveyou, a mathematician at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said “the generation of random numbers is too important to be left to chance.” Naturally, he was quoted out of context for the next thousand years, and his words appeared in everything from video-games to volumes of scripture. Had he trademarked the phrase, he might have made millions. Then again, he might not. Fame is fickle, and whether or not you object to the role played by chance, she rolls her own dice [Tayler 2003].


Coveyou, Robert. 1969. Random Number Generation is too Important to be Left to Chance. In Studies in Applied Mathematics, edited by B. R. Agins and M. H. Kalos, iii: 70–111. Philadelphia: SIAM.

Tayler, Howard. 2003, May 28. Schlock Mercenary.

“Quotations in Context” is a regular column written by Michael Molinsky that has appeared in the CSHPM/SCHPM Bulletin of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics since 2006 (this installment was first published in November 2015). In the modern world, quotations by mathematicians or about mathematics frequently appear in works written for a general audience, but often these quotations are provided without listing a primary source or providing any information about the surrounding context in which the quotation appeared. These columns provide interesting information on selected statements related to mathematics, but more importantly, the columns highlight the fact that students today can do the same legwork, using online databases of original sources to track down and examine quotations in their original context.


Michael Molinsky (University of Maine at Farmington), "Quotations in Context: Coveyou," Convergence (February 2024)