Prior to the invention of electronic calculators, if you needed to take the log of a number, you looked it up in a table. Astronomer Simon Newcomb used such tables, and in 1881, he noticed that the pages in the front, used for numbers beginning with the lowest digits, were more worn than those in the back. From this mundane observation, he realized that—at least for measurements and constants in nature—the leading digits were much more likely to be small than large. He published a short article about it and moved on.

For decades, this statistical curiosity, like Tolkien’s One Ring, “passed out of all knowledge.” ...

Get Impractical Python Projects now with O’Reilly online learning.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from 200+ publishers.