Infinite monkey theorem in popular culture

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Given enough time, a hypothetical chimpanzee typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce one of Shakespeare's plays (or any other text).

The infinite monkey theorem and its associated imagery is considered a popular and proverbial illustration of the mathematics of probability, widely known to the general public because of its transmission through popular culture rather than because of its transmission via the classroom.[1]

However, this popularity as either presented to or taken in the public's mind often oversimplifies or confuses important aspects of the different scales of the concepts involved: infinity, probability, and time—all of these are in measures beyond average human experience and practical comprehension or comparison.

Popularity[edit]

The history of the imagery of 'typing monkeys' dates back at least as far as Émile Borel's use of the metaphor in his essay in 1913, and this imagery has recurred many times since in a variety of media.

  • The Hoffmann and Hofmann paper (2001) referenced a collection compiled by Jim Reeds, titled 'The Parable of the Monkeys – a.k.a. The Topos of the Monkeys and the Typewriters'.[2]
  • The enduring, widespread and popular nature of the knowledge of the theorem was noted in a 2001 paper, "Monkeys, Typewriters and Networks – the Internet in the Light of the Theory of Accidental Excellence". In their introduction to that paper, Hoffmann and Hofmann stated: "The Internet is home to a vast assortment of quotations and experimental designs concerning monkeys and typewriters. They all expand on the theory […] that if an infinite number of monkeys were left to bang on an infinite number of typewriters, sooner or later they would accidentally reproduce the complete works of William Shakespeare (or even just one of his sonnets)."[3]
  • In 2002, a Washington Post article said: "Plenty of people have had fun with the famous notion that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite amount of time could eventually write the works of Shakespeare."[4]
  • In 2003, an Arts Council funded experiment involving real monkeys and a computer keyboard received widespread press coverage.[5]
  • In 2007, the theorem was listed by Wired magazine in a list of eight classic thought experiments.[6]
  • Another study of the history was published in the introduction to a study published in 2007 by Terry Butler, "Monkeying Around with Text".[7]

Today, popular interest in the typing monkeys is sustained by numerous appearances in literature, television and radio, music, and the Internet, as well as graphic novels and stand-up comedy routines. Several collections of cultural references to the theorem have been published.

The following thematic timelines are based on these existing collections. The timelines are not comprehensive – instead, they document notable examples of references to the theorem appearing in various media.[8] The initial timeline starts with some of the early history following Borel, and the later timelines record examples of the history, from the stories by Maloney and Borges in the 1940s, up to the present day.

Early history[edit]

Literature[edit]

  • 1940 – In "Inflexible Logic" by Russell Maloney, a short story that appeared in The New Yorker, the protagonist felt that his wealth put him under an obligation to support the sciences, and so he tested the theory. His monkeys immediately set to work typing, without error, classics of fiction and nonfiction. The rich man was amused to see unexpurgated versions of Samuel Pepys' diaries, of which he owned only a copy of a bowdlerised edition.[9][10]
  • 1970 – A humorous short story by R. A. Lafferty, "Been a Long, Long Time" (Fantastic, December), tells the story of an angel who is punished by having to supervise (for trillions of years) randomly typing monkeys who are attempting to produce a perfect copy of the collected works of Shakespeare.[11]
  • 1979 – Chapter XXIII of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende describes a city full of people that have lost their memories, overseen by a monkey. The monkey entertains these people by letting them play a game of dice with letters on them. The monkey explains that since these people have lost their capability to write stories themselves, the game will make it possible for them to produce sentences, stories, or poems by pure chance. Eventually this game would produce any story ever told, including the Neverending Story itself.
  • 1987 – In the one-act play Words, Words, Words by David Ives, three monkeys named Milton, Swift, and Kafka have been confined to a cage by a Dr Rosenbaum, who has the hypothesis:

    "Three monkeys hitting keys at random on typewriters for an infinite amount of time will almost surely produce Hamlet ".

    The play's humour mainly involves literary references, including moments when the random typing produces passages from great works of literature. The play premiered in January 1987, and is still being performed over 20 years later.[12][13]
  • 1996 – In Jim Cowan's short story "The Spade of Reason" (published in Century 4, 1996), the main character seeks to find meaning in the universe through text randomly generated through various means; the original program he uses to do so is something he dubs the "Motorola Monkey".

Motion pictures[edit]

  • 1959 – In the film On the Beach, when wireless Morse code signals are detected by radio operators on the submarine, the commander mentions "the old story about an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters," and that "one of them has to end up writing King Lear."

Radio and television[edit]

  • 1978 – In his radio play, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams invoked the theorem to illustrate the power of the ‘Infinite Improbability Drive’ that powered a spaceship. From Episode 2: "Ford, there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out."
  • 1983 – In the Doctor Who episode "Mawdryn Undead", the Doctor mentions the theorem in passing (quoting it as "a treeful of monkeys"), stating to Tegan that "you and I both know, at the end of a millennium they'd still be tapping out gibberish." Tegan's response: "And you'd be tapping it out right alongside them."
  • 1993 – In The Simpsons episode "Last Exit to Springfield", Montgomery Burns has his own room with 1000 monkeys at typewriters, one of which he chastises for mistyping a word in the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities — "'It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times?' You stupid monkey!"[14][15]
  • 1998 – An advertisement for Molson Canadian beer depicts an array of typing chimpanzees filling a seemingly endless cathedral-like structure while a voice-over sardonically asks "Could an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters eventually define what it is to be Canadian?" [16]
  • 1998 – In the "Battle of the Sexists" episode of That '70s Show, Eric Forman yells after his girlfriend Donna Pinciotti scored during a game of basketball:

    "Pinciotti actually scores! Hell freezes over! A monkey types Hamlet!"

  • 1998 – In the animated series Fat Dog Mendoza one of the series main villains, Doctor Rectangle, keeps a basement full of monkeys typing away on typewrites. The running gag is that Doctor Rectangle mistakenly believes that he can directly and practically use the infinite monkey theorem, using real monkeys and typewriters, to create a great work of literature or come up with a plan that will make him famous and/or powerful. It is also believed that, unbeknown to Doctor Rectangle, the monkeys are in fact very intelligent and just type things at random to amuse themselves and receive a steady income of bananas.
  • 1999 – The infinite monkey theorem is the subject of a brief sketch in the Histeria! episode "Super Writers".
  • 1999 – "A Troo Storee", an episode of I Am Weasel, features a large room filled with several types of monkeys with typewriters who are working on a novel. When Weasel tries to pay them in bananas, they consider it an insult and quit their job, all except for Baboon.[17]
  • 2000 – In the Family Guy episode "The King is Dead", Lois questions Peter's creativity, to which he replies:

    "Oh, art-schmart. Put enough monkeys in a room with a typewriter they'll produce Shakespeare."

    The scene then cuts to several monkeys in a room, arguing over which flower is most appropriate in the famous line from Romeo and Juliet.[18]
  • 2001 – In the sixth episode of the first season of The Ricky Gervais Show, comedian Ricky Gervais tries to explain this theorem to Karl Pilkington, who refuses to believe it possible. In attempting to explain the mathematics behind the theorem, Gervais eventually gives up and storms out of the room when, after a long explication by Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Karl says, "If they haven't even read Shakespeare, how do they know what they're doin?"[19]
  • 2004 – In "The Science Fair Affair" episode of The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Sheen's science fair project is having an iguana sprawled on a typewriter under the assumption that it will "write the next great American novel".
  • 2005 – At the end of the Robot Chicken episode "Badunkadunk", the Stoopid Monkey production logo's background is made up of upside-down text pertaining to the Infinite Monkey Theorem.[20]
  • 2005 – In the Veronica Mars episode "Cheatty Cheatty Bang Bang", Veronica, commenting on the sudden realization she did know David 'Curly' Moran says:

    "Somewhere, those million chimps, with their million typewriters, must've written King Lear."

  • 2006 – In June 2006, The Colbert Report featured a humorous segment on how many monkeys it would take for various works. This was in response to comments made in the news on monkeys typing out the Bible or the Qur'an. According to Colbert, one million monkeys typing for eternity would produce Shakespeare, ten thousand (drinking) monkeys typing for ten thousand years would produce Hemingway, and ten monkeys typing for three days would produce a work of Dan Brown.
  • 2007 – In an episode of the daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless (broadcast January and February 2007 in Canada and the USA), when Colleen Carlton copies scrambled letters obtained from the Grugeon Reliquary onto a dry board, Professor Adrian Korbel jokingly asks if she's testing the Infinite Monkey Theorem. When asked what this is, he replies:

    "Thomas Henry Huxley said if you gave keyboards to an infinite amount of monkeys, and gave said monkeys an infinite amount of time… Well it is safe to say…you are not the magic monkey." [21]

  • 2009 – "The Infinite Monkey Cage" is a "Witty, irreverent look at the world through scientists eyes. With Brian Cox and Robin Ince" on Radio 4 on the BBC.[22]
  • 2010 – BBC Horizon, To Infinity And Beyond
  • 2011 – on an episode of the topical comedy programme Mock the Week, Comedian Micky Flanagan references it in a segment of "Scenes We'd Like to See."
  • 2013 - presented in the philosophical thriller "After the Dark" referenced prior to the second experiment

Video games[edit]

  • 2000 – When talking to Inspector Canard in Escape from Monkey Island, he says that that "if [he] had a monkey for every time some penny-ante crook tried to pin their criminal malfeasance on Pegnose Pete...[he would] have enough monkeys to work out a reasonable sequel to Hamlet by now."
  • 2004 – During a cutscene in Killzone, Colonel Hakha says to Rico during an argument, "Even a monkey will write Shakespeare if given enough time".

Comics and graphic novels[edit]

  • 1981 – Fone, a science fiction comic by Milo Manara.
  • 1989 – In the comic strip Dilbert, Dogbert tells Dilbert that his poem would take "three monkeys, ten minutes".
  • 1990 – The Animal Man comic by Grant Morrison (a revival of the Animal Man DC character) contained an issue (Monkey Puzzles) including a monkey who typed not only the works of Shakespeare, but comic books as well. The TPB this issue is collected in (Deus ex Machina – 2003) featured an "infinite" number of Grant Morrisons typing on the cover.[23][24]
  • 2008 – The cartoonist Ruben Bolling satirized the thought experiment in his Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon, with a monkey asking "How can I credibly delay Hamlet's revenge until Act V" in the final frame.[25]
  • 2008 – In a comic book written by Scott McCloud about Google Chrome, monkeys on laptops are used as an analogy to random data.[26]
  • 2009 – In the graphic novel Umineko: When They Cry, Bernkastel was involved in such a situation that she had to type the word "Miracle" randomly on a typewriter. After an extraordinary amount of time, she accomplished the task and became the Witch of Miracles.

Software and internet culture[edit]

  • 1979 – Apple Computer released Bruce Tognazzini's "The Infinite No. Of Monkeys", a humorous demonstration of Apple BASIC, on their DOS 3.2 disk for the Apple II computer.
  • 1995 – "The famous Brett Watson" published his Internet paper, "The Mathematics of Monkeys and Shakespeare" which was, in 2000, to be included as a reference in RFC 2795 (see below)
  • 1996 – Robert Wilensky once jocularly remarked, "We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true." This version of the internet analogy "began appearing as a very frequent email and web-page epigraph starting in 1997".[1]
    • A variant appeared in USENET at about the same time: "The Experiment has begun! A million monkeys and a million keyboards. We call it USENET."[citation needed]
  • 2000 – The IETF Internet standards committee's April Fools' Day RFC proposed an "Infinite Monkey Protocol Suite (IMPS)", a method of directing a farm of infinitely many monkeys over the Internet.[27]
  • 2005 – Goats, a webcomic illustrated by Jonathan Rosenberg, started in August 2005 an ongoing story line named infinite typewriters where several characters accidentally teleport to an alternate dimension. There they find that this dimension is populated by monkeys with typewriters, presumably typing the scripts of many other dimensions.
  • 2006 – The Infinite Monkey Project was launched by predictive text company T9. The Europe-wide project sees users, unknown to each other, text a word of their choosing to the Website. The text message is free and as it continues the words are combined to form lyrics. The lyrics are then made into a song by the Hip Hop artist Sparo which will be released as an album. If any of the tracks becomes a hit the people who texted in the words for the lyrics will receive royalties from the project.[28][29][30]
  • 2007 – A website named One Million Monkeys Typing was introduced, a collaborative writing site where anyone can sign up and add writing "snippets" that others can add on to, eventually creating stories with many outcomes.
  • 2008 – An issue of MAD shows a depiction of the Infinite Monkey Theorem which states that when good monkeys go bad, one of the infinite monkeys would surely plagiarize A Tale of Two Cities.
  • 2008 – Monkeys are depicted typing random bits of text in Google's online comic book advertising their Google Chrome Web Browser.[31]
  • 2009 – Infinite Monkey Comics was launched, which features a random comic generator that creates three-panel comics by placing a random tweet from Twitter over a random image from Flickr based on keywords of the user's choosing. The result is a nearly inexhaustible collection of potential comics generated by the random musings and typing of internet users.
  • 2009 – Monkeys With Typewriters draws its namesake from the theorem.
  • 2010 – Lyrois Beating a Million Monkeys a somewhat sarcastic look at contemporary art uses the monkeys as a metaphor.
  • 2011 – www.shakespearean-monkeys.com a social literature website, where the users are the monkeys.

Stand-up comedy[edit]

  • 1960 onwards – Comedian Bob Newhart had a stand-up routine in which a lab technician monitoring an "infinitely many monkeys" experiment discovered that one of the monkeys has typed something of interest. A typical punchline would be: "Hey, Harry! This one looks a little famous: 'To be or not to be – that is thegrrdnm zsplkt.'"[32][33][34]

Music[edit]

  • 1979 – The debut album by Leeds punk rock band the Mekons is called The Quality of Mercy is Not Strnen (1979). Originally released on Virgin Records in the United Kingdom, its cover features a photo, not of a monkey, but of a typing chimpanzee. The title refers to a Shakespeare quote from The Merchant of Venice: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd".[35]
  • 1989 – The band Negativland sampled Estus Pirkle on their album Helter Stupid (1989) saying, "If you get enough monkeys, enough typewriters, and enough bread, one of them will eventually come up with the King James Version of the Bible!!!" while to chants of "We don't have enough data. We just don't have enough data" said by a Japanese secretary.
  • 2002 – Hip Hop Artist El-P references the theorem in rhyme with "see me as a banshee, as the illest motherfucker since Oedipus / monkey number one million with a typewriter, flipping tempest text" on "Truancy" from the album "Fantastic Damage"
  • 2007 – Robot Goes Here, an electronic rock band on Infidel Records, recorded The Infinite Monkey Theorem (2007) featuring a chorus with the lyrics, "Got a pet monkey down in the basement, chained to a typewriter pounding away, churning out copies of the works of Shakespeare; halfway through Hamlet he wrote me this song."

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Examples of the theorem being referred to as proverbial include: Why Creativity Is Not like the Proverbial Typing Monkey Jonathan W. Schooler, Sonya Dougal, Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 10, No. 4 (1999); and The Case of the Midwife Toad (Arthur Koestler, New York, 1972, page 30): "Neo-Darwinism does indeed carry the nineteenth-century brand of materialism to its extreme limits—to the proverbial monkey at the typewriter, hitting by pure chance on the proper keys to produce a Shakespeare sonnet." The latter is sourced from Parable of the Monkeys, a collection of historical references to the theorem in various formats.
  2. ^ The Parable of the Monkeys, as of 2007, is hosted at the website of the experimental music/dance/performance art group Infinite Monkeys.
  3. ^ Monkeys, Typewriters and Networks, Ute Hoffmann & Jeanette Hofmann, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung gGmbH (WZB), 2001.
  4. ^ "Hello? This is Bob", Ken Ringle, Washington Post, 28 October 2002, page C01.
  5. ^ Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare – some press clippings.
  6. ^ The Best Thought Experiments: Schrödinger's Cat, Borel's Monkeys, Greta Lorge, Wired Magazine: Issue 15.06, May 2007.
  7. ^ Monkeying Around with Text, Terry Butler, University of Alberta, Computing in the Humanities Working Papers, 2007.
  8. ^ The examples included invariably refer directly to a variation on the theme of a large number of typing monkeys producing a work of literature, usually, but not always, a work by Shakespeare. Infinite libraries, and random text generation (instead of monkeys) are also included. Trivial or incomplete references are excluded.
  9. ^ Inflexible Logic, synopsis at the Mathematical Fiction database.
  10. ^ The story was reprinted in the classic four-volume The World of Mathematics by James R. Newman, published in 1956.
  11. ^ Been a long, long time, synopsis by Fred Galvin, at the Mathematical Fiction database.
  12. ^ The Stage: One-acts at Punchline, Mel Gussow, The New York Times, 15 January 1987.
  13. ^ It's All in the Laughing, All in the Timing will have you in stitches, review by Melissa Bearns for Eugene Weekly, 4 June 2006.
  14. ^ Last Exit To Springfield script, Simpson Crazy website.
  15. ^ Woo-hoo! A look at the 10 best 'Simpsons' episodes ever, Press & Sun-Bulletin, 27 July 2007. "The genius of this joke is a child can laugh at it, but those who understand the allusion to Charles Dickens and the infinite monkey theorem can laugh on another level."[dead link]
  16. ^ "Molson Monkeys", Advertising Age, June 1998
  17. ^ A Troo Storee, TV.com episode guide: "Weasel tries to test the "monkeys typing Shakespeare" theorem".
  18. ^ Family Guy official website – script of the "Monkeys Writing Shakespeare" scene.[dead link]
  19. ^ XFM archives "Season 1 Vol. 6", "Do you know what he said to me? I explained it to him, I said 'You've got an infinite number of monkeys, an infinite number of typewriters, they will type the complete works of Shakespeare.' He said, 'Have they read Shakespeare?'"
  20. ^ The Robot Chicken Wiki – Screenshot of Robot Chicken Stoopid Monkey production logo that refers to the Infinite Monkey Theorem
  21. ^ Episode transcript, at tvmegasite.net
  22. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00p29l8
  23. ^ Grant Morrison's Animal Man #8-26, Jonathan Woodward, "Issue #25, July '90: "Monkey Puzzles" […] The text in the typewriter is Morrison's script for this issue. The monkey, of course, is the famous one who, given an infinite amount of time, will eventually write out the complete Shakespeare, completely at random."
  24. ^ Animal Man, Book 3 – Deus Ex Machina (Paperback), Amazon.com scan of the book cover.
  25. ^ "Tom the Dancing Bug July 2008
  26. ^ "Google Chrome". Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  27. ^ S. Christey (1 April 2000). "RFC 2795: The Infinite Monkey Protocol Suite (IMPS)". Retrieved 2006-06-13. 
  28. ^ "The articulate monkeys". Computer Music. Retrieved 2006-11-09. 
  29. ^ "Infinite Monkey Project wants your texts". Pocket-lint. Retrieved 2006-11-09. 
  30. ^ "The Infinite Monkey Project". Crossfire. Retrieved 2006-11-09. 
  31. ^ "10th Page of Google Chrome comic book.". 
  32. ^ "Hello? This is Bob", Ken Ringle, Washington Post, 28 October 2002, page C01.
  33. ^ Flashback: Computer poetry from 1985, Al Fasoldt, The Syracuse Newspapers, 1985.
  34. ^ The date of 1960 is given in Monkeying Around with Text, Terry Butler, University of Alberta, Computing in the Humanities Working Papers, January 2007.
  35. ^ Mekons fansite – picture and commentary on the album and cover: "This unusual title was drawn from the axiom that, if you give a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time, it would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare, a wry comment on the group's own musical ability. The rest of the Shakespeare quote appears on the Mekons Story". The last sentence refers to the later collection The Mekons Story, which included the song 'It Falleth Like Gentle Rain from Heaven'.

External links[edit]