Suppose I sample values uniformly at random from the unit interval. How many samples should I expect to take before the sum of my sampled values exceeds unity?^{1}
Let \(N\)
be the (random) number of samples taken when the sum first exceeds unity.
Then \(N\)
has expected value \(E[N]\)
equal to Euler’s number \(e\approx2.718282\)
.
This can be verified approximately via simulation:
simulate < function(run) {
tot < 0
N < 0
while (tot < 1) {
tot < tot + runif(1)
N < N + 1
}
N
}
set.seed(0)
mean(sapply(1:1e5, simulate))
## [1] 2.7183
To see why \(E[N]=e\)
, let \((X_i)_{i=1}^\infty\)
be an infinite sequence of random variables with uniform distributions over the unit interval.
Then the probability that \(N\)
exceeds any nonnegative integer \(n\)
is
$$\Pr(N>n)=\Pr(X_1+X_2+\cdots+X_n<1).$$
Consider the unit (hyper)cube in \(\mathbb{R}^n\)
.
Its vertices comprise the origin, the standard basis vectors \(e_1,e_2,\ldots,e_n\)
, and the sums of two or more of these basis vectors.
The convex hull of \(\{0,e_1,e_2,\ldots,e_n\}\)
forms an \(n\)
simplex with volume \(1/n!\)
.
The interior of this simplex is precisely the set
$$\{X_1,X_2,\ldots,X_n\in[0,1]:X_1+X_2+\cdots+X_n<1\}.$$
It follows that \(\Pr(X_1+X_2+\cdots+X_n<1)=1/n!\)
and therefore \(\Pr(N>n)=1/n!\)
from above.
Now
$$\Pr(N=n)=\Pr(N>n1)\Pr(N>n)$$
for each \(n\ge1\)
.
Thus, since \(\Pr(N>0)=1\)
(and, by convention, \(0!=1\)
), we have
$$\begin{align} E[N] &= \sum_{n=1}^\infty n\Pr(N=n) \\ &= \sum_{n=1}^\infty n\left(\Pr(N>n1)\Pr(N>n)\right) \\ &= \Pr(N>0)+\sum_{n=1}^\infty\Pr(N>n) \\ &= 1+\sum_{n=1}^\infty\frac{1}{n!} \\ &= \sum_{n=0}^\infty\frac{1}{n!} \\ &= e. \end{align}$$
The final equality comes from evaluating the Maclaurin series expansion of \(e^x\)
at \(x=1\)
.

Grant Sanderson mentions this problem in this Numberphile video. ↩︎