by Lenny Esposito
Have you ever heard the suggestion that given enough monkeys banging on enough typewriters with enough time, they will eventually produce something like a work of Shakespeare? That idea was first proposed by French mathematician Émile Borel1 and then used by British astronomer Arthur Eddington. Both were using the analogy to show while nothing can be considered impossible from a mathematical standpoint, certain ideas are so unlikely that they can be discounted.2
However, as what came to be known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem entered the popular culture, it seemed to be turned on its head. Many people seem to think that the analogy shows that absolutely nothing is impossible given enough time. The problem is m the analogy was used to show just
how improbable a particular theory on gas movements really is by comparing it to something more easily pictured in people's minds: monkeys producing works of literature. That's why Eddington finished his version of the analogy with "The chance of the monkeys doing so is decidedly more favourable than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel."3
The folks over at Uncommon Descent have written a detailed response to the Infinite Monkey Theorem and how it applies to the origin of life, but that isn't my reason for writing this post. The more interesting point in my opinion is the assumptions that are carried along with the analogy itself. In Borel's day, there were no such things as computers that could generate purely random outputs of letters, so he used a theoretical monkey to make his case. But the folks over at the University of Plymouth were intrigued by the concept, so they thought they'd give it a try on a much smaller scale…
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