The Infinite Monkey Theorem

I was taught in middle school that given an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters, the monkeys would eventually produce all the great works of literature.  I’m still not certain if that’s true, but I now know that the Infinite Monkey Theorem has been around for a long time, even as a publisher’s business model.  In a Simpsons episode, Mr. Burns chains a thousand monkeys to typewriters, tasked with writing a great novel.  Burns doesn’t take it well when one of the monkeys types, “It was the best of times.  It was the blurst of times.”

Aristotle was probably the first to contemplate the implications of infinity (minus typewriters or The Simpsons).  He believed that we can only think of the “potential infinite,” because the “actual infinite” is simply not humanly imaginable.  Weighing in on the topic over time were Cicero, Pascal, Jonathan Swift, and Sir Arthur Eddington (of time’s arrow), who prophesized that, “If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum.”

Reality Check:  In 2003, students from the University of Plymouth put the notion of key-flogging simians to an empirical test by placing six crested macaques and a computer in a cage for a month.  At the end of the experiment the monkeys had produced about five pages of letters, mostly “S,” but not a single word.  According to Mike Phillips, one of the study’s researchers, the lead male spent most of his time bashing the keyboard with a rock, while the others urinated and defecated on it.

Clearly, animal husbandry issues perturb the Infinite Monkey Theorem, plus there are mathematical and philosophical concerns as well, but the main point for us, again, is that within the immensity of time and space, low probability events, up to and including you and me, will eventually come to pass.  But in our case infinity is off the table—scientific consensus stipulates that the universe sprang forth a meager fourteen billion years ago.  To engineer us, the Howlers of happenstance were allotted fewer typewriters, which is why our lives read more like pulp fiction than great works of literature.