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Sanjeev Chandran Headshot

Shakespeare and Monkeys

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MONKEY
PA

While I was in India last week, I read an article about how some "virtual" monkeys had recreated the works of Shakespeare.

This, of course is one of the fundamental pieces which is used to explain the concepts of probability and infinity. The concept is that infinity is so large that even those events with an extremely small probability would eventually occur given an infinite number of attempts. And monkeys randomly typing out on a typewriter is the classic example.

However, it is just a conceptual example. It's like the Brownian motion example - air particles in a closed room randomly move about...and in theory all of them could end up in one corner of the room - thereby suffocating someone at the other end, just by chance. Of course, something like that is going to happen only once in a billion years...but that once could be tomorrow, in the room you are in.

Not that that should worry you much. It's not going to happen! Period!

That's why I was so intrigued by this story...it was extremely interesting and made the chance of suffocating in a normal room just that much more likely.

Alas, the story did not however live up to the reality. They haven't really typed out the whole of Shakespeare. They have typed out nine letter strings and if they match any nine letter string in Shakespeare, they mark it as complete. In that way, they have gone through the entire text - or at least 99% of it.

Let's look at that it in more detail. Say, the monkey typed "otinourst". I am sure there is no such word in Shakespeare. But it would count towards having written out Shakespeare ("The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."). Similarly "ityisthes" would also count ("Brevity is the soul of wit")

In this way, they have apparently written more than 90% of Shakespeare. I don't know whether to laugh or to cry! And this has been reported widely! And I am sure there are many who have just seen the sound bite and now truly believe that Shakespeare has been recreated. That's what the world has come to - useless research and sensational news. Sad.

Frankly, I can't believe the natural absurdity of this did not strike the researcher. It probably did but perhaps he still chose to do this as a bit of fun. I certainly hope that this is the truth rather than the alternative which is that somebody seriously thought that one could randomly type out all of Shakespeare using nine letter strings.

If you are not getting why this is so then let me tell you that I have, through random typing, been able to write out every book which has ever been written in English. In order to do this, I have, however, had to put in certain restrictions. The restrictions are not absurd; as I am sure you will agree on reading them

  • Punctuation marks have been omitted
  • Books which were written in Old English will have to be transliterated to the modern 26 letter English alphabet (so letters like æ and ð will be represented by "a" or "th")
  • Upper case and lower case are ignored
I think we can all agree that these are not unreasonable restrictions.

So, now here for posterity are all the books ever written in English

1

Q

A

Z

2

W

S

X

3

E

D

C

4

R

F

V

5

T

G

B

6

Y

H

N

7

U

J

M

8

I

K

9

O

L

0

P

(hint- start at the top left hand corner of your keyboard and go diagonally down)

Working within the three restrictions above, every book ever written in English, broken down into 1 letter strings, is contained in these 36 lines.

Who needs monkeys!

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