Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Typing Monkeys


More observations stimulated by John Barrows new book (see my recent blog)

Everybody has heard the suggestion that a million (or some other number) of monkeys typing continuously for many millenia would eventually produce a) Shakespeare, b) all of known science, c) the bible, d) all of the above).
It began with Jonathon Swift and Gulliver's Travels, 1872, according to Professor Barrow. In the tale "a mythical professor of the Grand Academy of Lagado who aims to generate a catalogue of all scientific knowledge by having his students continuously generate random strings of letters..." (I think, see emphasis in the excerpt below, that it was random strings of words).. Anyway, according to the good Professor Barrow, the story was embellished in different forms until French Mathematician Emile Borel{there is a street and a square named for him in the 17th District in Paris} suggested that random typing monkeys could duplicate the French national library. A few years later(1929), Arthur Eddington Anglicised that to "books in the British Museum."
By 1972, Arthur Koestler writing in The Case of the Midwife Toad, New York, 1972, page 30, refers to Monkeys
typing Shakespeare as "proverbial":"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."

Ok, so eventually someone had to put this to a more scientific test, and they did. "A website entitled The Monkey Shakespeare Simulator, launched on July 1, 2003, contained a Java applet that simulates a large population of monkeys typing randomly, with the stated intention of seeing how long it takes the virtual monkeys to produce a complete Shakespearean play from beginning to end. For example, it produced this partial line from Henry IV, Part 2, reporting that it took "2,737,850 million billion billion billion monkey-years" to reach 24 matching characters:"RUMOUR. Open your ears; 9r5j5&?OWTY Z0d... "

Even more impressive, to me, is the fact that 'in another part of that book, Swift tells of how the astronomers on the flying island of Laputia had: "discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve around Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the center of the primary exactly three of his diameters, and the outermost five: the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half".

Swift wrote this in 1726, but it was not until 1877 that Asaph Hall discovered the two moons of Mars.'... I just did a little checking on the orbit and periods he "predicted?" and the actual periods are about 7 hours for Phobos, and about 30 for Deimos... and their distance from the planet were about 9 x 103km and 23.5 x 103km. Mars has a diameter of 6.794 x 103km so they are closer to 1.5 and 3 radii away it seems, but wow, for 100 years before the actual discovery??? Don't you wonder what made him use Mars instead of Venus or ??? Wait, maybe authors typing randomly can describe the true nature of the universe (with some limits of error)...

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If you have your copy, here is what I found in Chapter Five of Gulliver's Travels. The whole thing is available at the Guttenburg Project.

"The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, "Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man's head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study." He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me "to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work." The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me "that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech."
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