Infinite monkey theorem

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The infinite monkey theorem states that due to the nature of infinity, a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard will almost surely eventually type out the collected works of William Shakespeare. Note that almost surely is being used in a precise mathematical sense here (see almost surely). In English speaking countries the metaphor is described using the works of Shakespeare, but the original image was created by the Frenchman Émile Borel in his 1913 book "Mécanique Statistique et Irréversibilité," in which the monkeys would eventually type all the books in France's Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library). However, although Borel created this new metaphor, the nature of infinity had long before been speculated upon.

The theorem was created to demonstrate the nature of infinity in relation to probability. It attempted to show that given enough time, not only could anything happen, but everything probably will happen, not matter how unlikely. And for Borel, the purpose of the monkey image was to illustrate the magnitude of an extraordinarily unlikely event.

Literature and popular culture

  • Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1782) anticipates the central idea of the theorem, depicting a professor of the Grand Academy of Lagado who attempts to create a complete list of all knowledge of science by having his students constantly create random strings of letters by turning cranks on a mechanism (Part three, Chapter five): although his intention was more likely to parody Ramon Llull.
  • In The Simpsons' episode "Last Exit To Springfield" (S9E15), Montgomery Burns has his own room with 1000 monkeys at typewriters, one of which is chastised for mistyping a word in the opening sentence of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities — "It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times. Blurst of times? You stupid monkey!",
  • A cut scene in Family Guy, shows a group of monkeys is shown collaborating on a line from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, while under the influence of the 'Infinite Improbability Drive', are ambushed by an infinite number of monkeys who want their opinion on the monkeys' script for Hamlet.
The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen by The Mekons
  • The debut album by Leeds punk rock band The Mekons is called "The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen." Originally released on Virgin Records in the UK in 1979, its cover features a photo of a typing chimp (which, of course, is not a monkey at all).
  • The theorem is also the basis of a one-act play by David Ives called "Words, Words, Words", which appears in his collection All in the Timing. In the one-act, three monkeys named John Milton, Jonathan Swift, and Franz Kafka have been confined to a cage by a scientist until they can write Hamlet.
  • In Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, one character says, "If a million monkeys..." and then cannot continue, as the characters are actually within Hamlet, one possible topic of this rule. He then finishes the sentence on a different topic.
  • In 2000, the IETF Internet standards committee's proposed an "Infinite Monkey Protocol Suite (IMPS)", a method of directing a farm of infinitely many monkeys over the Internet. In 2006, Pilkipedia web site was born.
  • Comedian Simon Munnery while performing as The League Against Tedium said: "A million monkeys were given a million typewriters. It's called the Internet."
  • And finally, Ricky Gervais has often tried to explain this theorem to his little, bald, round-headed radio show producer Karl Pilkington. However this is lost on Pilkington, who claims it "wouldn't 'appen" and that after all these years "there hasn't been one publication from a monkey". One such discussion can been seen as an extra on Ricky's Politics DVD.


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