Dina Yagodich gave me the topic for today. She keeps up a YouTube channel with a variety of interesting videos. And she did me a favor. I’ve been thinking a long while to write a major post about this theorem. Its subject turns up so often. I’d wanted to have a good essay about it. I hope this might be one.
Infinite Monkey Theorem.
Some mathematics escapes mathematicians and joins culture. This is one such. The monkeys are part of why. They’re funny and intelligent and sad and stupid and deft and clumsy, and they can sit at a keyboard almost look in place. They’re so like humans, except that we empathize with them. To imagine lots of monkeys, and putting them to some silly task, is compelling.
The metaphor traces back to a 1913 article by the mathematical physicist Émile Borel which I have not read. Searching the web I find much more comment about it than I find links to a translation of the text. And only one copy of the original, in French. And that page wants €10 for it. So I can tell you what everybody says was in Borel’s original text, but can’t verify it. The paper’s title is “Statistical Mechanics and Irreversibility”. From this I surmise that Borel discussed one of the great paradoxes of statistical mechanics. If we open a bottle of one gas in an airtight room, it disperses through the room. Why doesn’t every molecule of gas just happen, by chance, to end up back where it started? It does seem that if we waited long enough, it should. It’s unlikely it would happen on any one day, but give it enough days …
But let me turn to many web sites that are surely not all copying Wikipedia on this. Borel asked us to imagine a million monkeys typing ten hours a day. He posited it was possible but extremely unlikely that they would exactly replicate all the books of the richest libraries of the world. But that would be more likely than the atmosphere in a room un-mixing like that. Fair enough, but we’re not listening anymore. We’re thinking of monkeys. Borel’s is a fantastic image. It would see some adaptation in the years. Physicist Arthur Eddington, in 1928, made it an army of monkeys, with their goal being the writing all the books in the British Museum. By 1960 Bob Newhart had an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters, and a goal of all the great books. Stating the premise gets a laugh I doubt the setup would today. I’m curious whether Newhart brought the idea to the mass audience. (Google NGrams for “monkeys at typewriters” suggest that phrase was unwritten, in books, before about 1965.) We may owe Bob Newhart thanks for a lot of monkeys-at-typewriters jokes.
Newhart has a monkey hit on a line from Hamlet. I don’t know if it was Newhart that set the monkeys after Shakespeare particularly, rather than some other great work of writing. Shakespeare does seem to be the most common goal now. Sometimes the number of monkeys diminishes, to a thousand or even to one. Some people move the monkeys off of typewriters and onto computers. Some take the cowardly measure of putting the monkeys at “keyboards”. The word is ambiguous enough to allow for typewriters, computers, and maybe a Megenthaler Linotype. The monkeys now work 24 hours a day. This will be a comment someday about how bad we allowed pre-revolutionary capitalism to get.
The cultural legacy of monkeys-at-keyboards might well itself be infinite. It turns up in comic strips every few weeks at least. Television shows, usually writing for a comic beat, mention it. Computer nerds doing humor can’t resist the idea. Here’s a video of a 1979 Apple ][ program titled THE INFINITE NO. OF MONKEYS, which used this idea to show programming tricks. And it’s a great philosophical test case. If a random process puts together a play we find interesting, has it created art? No deliberate process creates a sunset, but we can find in it beauty and meaning. Why not words? There’s likely a book to write about the infinite monkeys in pop culture. Though the quotations of original materials would start to blend together.
But the big question. Have the monkeys got a chance? In a break from every probability question ever, the answer is: it depends on what the question precisely is. Occasional real-world experiments-cum-art-projects suggest that actual monkeys are worse typists than you’d think. They do more of bashing the keys with a stone before urinating on it, a reminder of how slight is the difference between humans and our fellow primates. So we turn to abstract monkeys who behave more predictably, and run experiments that need no ethical oversight.
So we must think what we mean by Shakespeare’s Plays. Arguably the play is a specific performance of actors in a set venue doing things. This is a bit much to expect of even a skilled abstract monkey. So let us switch to the book of a play. This has a more clear representation. It’s a string of characters. Mostly letters, some punctuation. Good chance there’s numerals in there. It’s probably a lot of characters. So the text to match is some specific, long string of characters in a particular order.
And what do we mean by a monkey at the keyboard? Well, we mean some process that picks characters randomly from the allowed set. When I see something is picked “randomly” I want to know what the distribution rule is. Like, are Q’s exactly as probable as E’s? As &’s? As %’s? How likely it is a particular string will get typed is easiest to answer if we suppose a “uniform” distribution. This means that every character is equally likely. We can quibble about capital and lowercase letters. My sense is most people frame the problem supposing case-insensitivity. That the monkey is doing fine to type “whaT beArD weRe i BEsT tO pLAy It iN?”. Or we could set the monkey at an old typesetter’s station, with separate keys for capital and lowercase letters. Some will even forgive the monkeys punctuating terribly. Make your choices. It affects the numbers, but not the point.
I’ll suppose there are 91 characters to pick from, as a Linotype keyboard had. So the monkey has capitals and lowercase and common punctuation to get right. Let your monkey pick one character. What is the chance it hit the first character of one of Shakespeare’s plays? Well, the chance is 1 in 91 that you’ve hit the first character of one specific play. There’s several dozen plays your monkey might be typing, though. I bet some of them even start with the same character, so giving an exact answer is tedious. If all we want monkey-typed Shakespeare plays, we’re being fussy if we want The Tempest typed up first and Cymbeline last. If we want a more tractable problem, it’s easier to insist on a set order.
So suppose we do have a set order. Then there’s a one-in-91 chance the first character matches the first character of the desired text. A one-in-91 chance the second character typed matches the second character of the desired text. A one-in-91 chance the third character typed matches the third character of the desired text. And so on, for the whole length of the play’s text. Getting one character right doesn’t make it more or less likely the next one is right. So the chance of getting a whole play correct is raised to the power of however many characters are in the first script. Call it 800,000 for argument’s sake. More characters, if you put two spaces between sentences. The prospects of getting this all correct is … dismal.
I mean, there’s some cause for hope. Spelling was much less fixed in Shakespeare’s time. There are acceptable variations for many of his words. It’d be silly to rule out a possible script that (say) wrote “look’d” or “look’t”, rather than “looked”. Still, that’s a slender thread.
But there is more reason to hope. Chances are the first monkey will botch the first character. But what if they get the first character of the text right on the second character struck? Or on the third character struck? It’s all right if there’s some garbage before the text comes up. Many writers have trouble starting and build from a first paragraph meant to be thrown away. After every wrong letter is a new chance to type the perfect thing, reassurance for us all.
Since the monkey does type, hypothetically, forever … well, so each character has a probability of only (or whatever) of starting the lucky sequence. The monkey will have chances to start. More chances than that.
And we don’t have only one monkey. We have a thousand monkeys. At least. A million monkeys. Maybe infinitely many monkeys. Each one, we trust, is working independently, owing to the monkeys’ strong sense of academic integrity. There are monkeys working on the project. And more than that. Each one takes their chance.
There are dizzying possibilities here. There’s the chance some monkey will get it all exactly right first time out. More. Think of a row of monkeys. What’s the chance the first thing the first monkey in the row types is the first character of the play? What’s the chance the first thing the second monkey in the row types is the second character of the play? The chance the first thing the third monkey in the row types is the third character in the play? What’s the chance a long enough row of monkeys happen to hit the right buttons so the whole play appears in one massive simultaneous stroke of the keys? Not any worse than the chance your one monkey will type this all out. Monkeys at keyboards are ergodic. It’s as good to have a few monkeys working a long while as to have many monkeys working a short while. The Mythical Man-Month is, for this project, mistaken.
That solves it then, doesn’t it? A monkey, or a team of monkeys, has a nonzero probability of typing out all Shakespeare’s plays. Or the works of Dickens. Or of Jorge Luis Borges. Whatever you like. Given infinitely many chances at it, they will, someday, succeed.
What is the chance that the monkeys screw up? They get the works of Shakespeare just right, but for a flaw. The monkeys’ Midsummer Night’s Dream insists on having the fearsome lion played by “Smaug the joiner” instead. This would send the play-within-the-play in novel directions. The result, though interesting, would not be Shakespeare. There’s a nonzero chance they’ll write the play that way. And so, given infinitely many chances, they will.
What’s the chance that they always will? That they just miss every single chance to write “Snug”. It comes out “Smaug” every time?
We can say. Call the probability that they make this Snug-to-Smaug typo any given time . That’s a number from 0 to 1. 0 corresponds to not making this mistake; 1 to certainly making it. The chance they get it right is . The chance they make this mistake twice is smaller than . The chance that they get it right at least once in two tries is closer to 1 than is. The chance that, given three tries, they make the mistake every time is even smaller still. The chance that they get it right at least once is even closer to 1.
You see where this is going. Every extra try makes the chance they got it wrong every time smaller. Every extra try makes the chance they get it right at least once bigger. And now we can let some analysis come into play.
So give me a positive number. I don’t know your number, so I’ll call it ε. It’s how unlikely you want something to be before you say it won’t happen. Whatever your ε was, I can give you a number . If the monkeys have taken more than tries, the chance they get it wrong every single time is smaller than your ε. The chance they get it right at least once is bigger than 1 – ε. Let the monkeys have infinitely many tries. The chance the monkey gets it wrong every single time is smaller than any positive number. So the chance the monkey gets it wrong every single time is zero. It … can’t happen, right? The chance they get it right at least once is closer to 1 than to any other number. So it must be 1. So it must be certain. Right?
But let me give you this. Detach a monkey from typewriter duty. This one has a coin to toss. It tosses fairly, with the coin having a 50% chance of coming up tails and 50% chance of coming up heads each time. The monkey tosses the coin infinitely many times. What is the chance the coin comes up tails every single one of these infinitely many times? The chance is zero, obviously. At least you can show the chance is smaller than any positive number. So, zero.
Yet … what power enforces that? What forces the monkey to eventually have a coin come up heads? It’s … nothing. Each toss is a fair toss. Each toss is independent of its predecessors. But there is no force that causes the monkey, after a hundred million billion trillion tosses of “tails”, to then toss “heads”. It’s the gambler’s fallacy to think there is one. The hundred million billion trillionth-plus-one toss is as likely to come up tails as the first toss is. It’s impossible that the monkey should toss tails infinitely many times. But there’s no reason it can’t happen. It’s also impossible that the monkeys still on the typewriters should get Shakespeare wrong every single time. But there’s no reason that can’t happen.
It’s unsettling. Well, probability is unsettling. If you don’t find it disturbing you haven’t thought long enough about it. Infinities, too, are unsettling so.
Formally, mathematicians interpret this — if not explain it — by saying the set of things that can happen is a “probability space”. The likelihood of something happening is what fraction of the probability space matches something happening. (I’m skipping a lot of background to say something that simple. Do not use this at your thesis defense without that background.) This sort of “impossible” event has “measure zero”. So its probability of happening is zero. Measure turns up in analysis, in understanding how calculus works. It complicates a bunch of otherwise-obvious ideas about continuity and stuff. It turns out to apply to probability questions too. Imagine the space of all the things that could possibly happen as being the real number line. Pick one number from that number line. What is the chance you have picked exactly the number -24.11390550338228506633488? I’ll go ahead and say you didn’t. It’s not that you couldn’t. It’s not impossible. It’s just that the chance that this happened, out of the infinity of possible outcomes, is zero.
The infinite monkeys give us this strange set of affairs. Some things have a probability of zero of happening, which does not rule out that they can. Some things have a probability of one of happening, which does not mean they must. I do not know what conclusion Borel ultimately drew about the reversibility problem. I expect his opinion to be that we have a clear answer, and unsettlingly great room for that answer to be incomplete.
This and other Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z posts can be read at this link. The next essay should come Friday and will, I hope, be shorter.
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