How do I generate $1000$ points $(x, y, z)$ and make sure they land on a sphere whose center is $(0, 0, 0)$ and its diameter is $20$? Simply, how do I manipulate a point's coordinates so that the point lies on the sphere's "surface"?

Use the fact that if you cut a sphere of a given radius with two parallel planes, the area of the strip of spherical surface between the planes depends only on the distance between the planes, not on where they cut the sphere. Thus, you can get a uniform distribution on the surface using two uniformly distributed random variables:

  • a $z$-coordinate, which in your case should be chosen between $-10$ and $10$; and
  • an angle in $[0,2\pi)$ corresponding to a longitude.

From those it’s straightforward to generate the $x$- and $y$-coordinates.

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    This always challenges my intuition. – copper.hat Dec 22 '15 at 21:17
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    @copper.hat: Yes, I’ve always found it surprising that the flattening and stretching exactly balance the shrinking radius as the planes move towards a pole. – Brian M. Scott Dec 22 '15 at 21:22
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    So you should get a uniform distribution on the cylinder and project on the sphere, like Archimedes. Nice! – orangeskid Dec 22 '15 at 22:37
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    This proves, by the way, that the surface area of a sphere's circumscribing cylinder (minus the endcaps) equals that of the sphere itself (and by corollary, the volume of the sphere is one-third the radius times the common surface area). – Brian Tung Dec 23 '15 at 0:11
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    Does this generalize to higher dimensions? For a 2D circle you just pick $\theta$ uniformly. For a 3D sphere you choose a $\theta$ and $z$. Is there a similar result for 4D and higher? – Meni Rosenfeld Dec 23 '15 at 13:07

Using Gaussian distribution for all three coordinates of your point will ensure an uniform distribution on the surface of the sphere. You should proceed as follows

  1. Generate three random numbers $x, y, z$ using Gaussian distribution
  2. Multiply each number by $1/\sqrt{x^2+y^2+z^2}$ (a.k.a. Normalise) . You should handle what happens if $x=y=z=0$.
  3. Multiply each number by the radius of your sphere.
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    Excellent! This works in any dimension and seems not to be widely known, although I've seen some older paper (late $'40$'s) where the authors claim that they've learned it from Harald Cramér. – orangeskid Dec 22 '15 at 22:43
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    Not widely known? Every probabilist should know that the multivariate standard normal distribution is spherically symmetric, from which this follows immediately. – Robert Israel Dec 23 '15 at 0:40

Here is a simple but less efficient way:

Generate points uniformly $x \in [-10,10]^3$ and reject if $\|x\| =0 $ (which should rarely happen) or $\|x\| > 10$ (which should happen with probability ${20^3 -{4 \over 3} \pi 10^3 \over 20^3} =1 - {\pi \over 6} \approx 48\%$). Otherwise let $y = {10 \over \|x\|} x$. Then $y$ will be distributed uniformly on the surface of the $10$-sphere.

  • The points that are not rejected are uniformly distributed in the sphere, and projecting such points to the surface preserves uniformity. – copper.hat Dec 22 '15 at 22:48
  • This method is probably faster than the others from a computationnal point of view. The only complex operations are a division and a square root, and both are quite fast – Tryss Dec 23 '15 at 21:34
  • @Tryss Computationally, yes, but probabilistically the rejection rate is not to be ignored, especially in high dimensions (cf. curse of dimensionality). There are also quite fast implementations of standard normal random variates. It may be worth doing some simulations although I would be surprised if no one has written a paper about it. – heropup Dec 23 '15 at 22:11
  • I think for 1000 points the cost is minimal, and the coding fairly simple. – copper.hat Dec 23 '15 at 22:13
  • @heropup : yes, in high dimensions the rejection rate is big, and the gaussian method scale lineary contrary to this method. But in low dimensions, it works very well – Tryss Dec 23 '15 at 22:30

In addition to Brian Scott's excellent and clever answer, here's another, more straightforward way (in case you want to approach it with a geographical intuition): From two random variables $u_1, u_2$, distributed uniformly on the interval $[0, 1]$, generate (in radians) the latitude

$$ \lambda = \arccos (2u_1-1)-\frac{\pi}{2} $$

and the longitude

$$ \phi = 2\pi u_2 $$

Then compute the rectangular coordinates accordingly:

$$ x = \cos\lambda\cos\phi $$ $$ y = \cos\lambda\sin\phi $$ $$ z = \sin\lambda $$

ETA (thanks to Tanner Strunk—see comments): This will give coordinates of points on the unit sphere. To have them land on the sphere with diameter $20$ (and therefore radius $10$), simply multiply each by $10$.

  • This is the best way. Some points: 1. arccos(-1..1) normally gives the range 0..pi, so I would be inclined to subtract pi/2 instead of pi, to get a number in the range -pi/2 .. pi/2 which is how a geographer would present the angle. Actually I think this change is required, because the current answer will always give negative z. 2. Having done that, I see nothing wrong with z = 2u -1 and cos lamba = sqrt(1-z^2) 3. phi works just as well with 2*npiu2, which may be convenient in some computer implementations. – Level River St Dec 24 '15 at 11:06
  • Oops, I think you are right. Thanks for the look out. – Brian Tung Dec 24 '15 at 15:41
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    I'm a bit late in coming to this question (ha), but you should be scaling those x,y,z expressions by 10 to land on the sphere, right? (Tiny, nit-picky detail, but I figure it should be noted for future readers.) Nice avatar by the way, Brian. – Tanner Strunk Jan 11 at 17:33
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    @TannerStrunk: Yes, you're quite right, thanks! I'll add an edit. – Brian Tung Jan 11 at 18:35

Same way as on a real sphere, but $(x,y,z) $ multiplied by $i.$

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    I'm afraid the OP by "imaginary" just meant "mathematical" – leonbloy Dec 22 '15 at 20:43
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    That's funny! ${}{}$ – copper.hat Dec 22 '15 at 20:54

Wolfram Mathworld provides a methodology for randomly picking a point on a sphere:

To obtain points such that any small area on the sphere is expected to contain the same number of points, choose $u$ and $ν$ to be random variates on $[0,1]$. Then: $$\begin{array}{ll}\theta=2\pi u\\ \varphi= arccos(2v - 1)\end{array}$$ gives the spherical coordinates for a set of points which are uniformly distributed over $\mathbb{S}^2$.

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