Science Can’t Decide If Monkeys Can Write Shakespeare

“There once was a brainy baboon, / Who always breathed down a bassoon, / For he said, “It appears / That in billions of years / I shall certainly hit on a tune”.” ā€”Arthur Stanley Eddington, New Pathways in Science

In A Nutshell

According to the theory, an infinite amount of monkeys typing on an infinite number of keyboards for an infinite amount of time will eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare. And because scientists apparently have an infinite amount of grant money, it’s been tried. Experiments with real monkeys and real typewriters yielded less-than-stellar results, including a large amount of monkey poop on said typewriters. Digital, virtual monkeys have fared slightly better and have indeed written Shakespeare, but other scientists have derided the way in which the text was pieced together.

The Whole Bushel

The theory says that an infinite amount of monkeys typing on an infinite number of keyboards for an infinite amount of time will produce the works of Shakespeare. As the world’s devoted scientists have often proved, they’ll leave no stone unturned in the name of progress and infinite grant money.

More than one experiment has been attempted to see just how likely this feat of literary prowess is, and the results are nothing less than epic.

One experiment, conducted by Plymouth University at the Paignton Zoo in Devon, tried to answer this using actual monkeys and actual typewriters. Unfortunately, the budget didn’t quite call for an infinite number of monkeys, so they had to settle for six. And they didn’t have an infinite amount of time, either; they had four weeks.

The resulting pages of text produced by Heather, Mistletoe, Gum, Rowan, Holly, and Elmo were less like the works of Shakespeare and more like five pages of random letters. And by “random letters,” we mean that it was mostly the letter ā€œsā€.” By the end of the four weeks, they were branching out into a few other letters, like ā€œm,” but it was still a far cry from Shakespeare’s plays. To be fair, it wasn’t quite the infinite amount of time the experiment is said to take, and they were pretty busy with other things during those four weeks.

Namely, filling the typewriters with poo.

A more recent attempt was made by a computer programmer who created virtual monkeys to start typing away at their virtual keyboards. In a relatively short time, it was reported that they had, indeed, written a good bit of Shakespeare’s works. Unsurprisingly, criticism was launched at the way the works were written. The program analyzed sequences of nine letters, and matched them against all of Shakespeare’s works, piecing together the text a bit at a time. Scientists who didn’t think of the experiment themselves said that it didn’t count, and what it did prove was that it would take more time than all the time that existed in the universe to actually have monkeys write a start-to-finish version of any complete work.

Strangely, the idea of random events forming not-so-random patterns was first postulated by Aristotle, when he put forth the idea that atoms could be randomly assembled into anything. The whole theory about the monkeys was coined by Emile Borel, a French mathematician who was trying to explain that just because things are possible, it doesn’t mean that they’re probable.

So mathematically, how long would it take an infinite number of monkeys to type up a start-to-finish catalog of Shakespeare’s works? One estimate says it would take one monkey typing for a number of years that’s best described as a one followed by six million zeroes.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: Give six monkeys a computer, and what do you get? Certainly not the Bard
The Telegraph: Monkeys at typewriters ‘close to reproducing Shakespeare’
Psychology Today: Have Monkeys Typed Shakespeare?