The Laboratory Shakespeare
A scientist and a monkey discuss the Infinite Monkey Theorem (humor)
This is a transcript of last week’s televised broadcast, “Phone-in Science News with Bob Meyers”. The US Now cable network assumes no responsibility for inaccuracies.
BOB: My guests tonight are Dr. Joan Sheffield, a Nobel prize-winning professor of physics at MIT, and Bingo, a tufted capuchin monkey. Welcome, Bingo and Dr. Sheffield.
BINGO: Hey, Bob.
BOB: Now Dr. Sheffield… my, that’s quite a mouthful. May I call you Joan?
SHEFFIELD: Well —
BINGO: Sure, why not?
BOB: Great. Now Joan, in addition to being a teacher, you’re the director of the National Institute of Information Research.
SHEFFIELD: That’s right, Bob. At the Institute we ask hard questions. What is communication? What is meaning? What’s the difference between design and random chance?
BOB: Fascinating. And you’re here because you reached a milestone.
SHEFFIELD: Yes, and it’s quite remarkable. Since the time of Aristotle, the world’s philosophers and scientists have theorized about random events that seem intentional. For instance, when a cloud or a piece of toast looks like a face, people think it’s a miracle. But science tells us that such things are bound to happen. I mean, if you roll the dice long enough, eventually you’ll roll 100 sevens in a row. Not often, but statistically it will happen.
BINGO: No, it won’t.
SHEFFIELD: Excuse me?
BINGO: Never gonna happen. Not in a million years.
SHEFFIELD: Sorry, Bingo, but it will and it does. I can show you on the computer.
BINGO: Computers are fine for scientists, Joan, but I live in the real world. I’ve been to Atlantic City, and take my word for it, you are never, ever gonna roll a hundred sevens in a row.
SHEFFIELD: (pause) Now, information theorists have a concept that randomness is like a vast tribe of monkeys playing on typewriters. They call this concept the “infinite monkey theorem”.
BOB: I don’t get it. They’re monkeys. Won’t they type gibberish?
BINGO: Exactly. Most monkeys are idiots. They type complete garbage. It’s the Tower of Babel all over again.
SHEFFIELD: But the laws of chance tell us that once in a while a monkey will randomly type a word or even an entire sentence.
BINGO: You should see it, Bob. Those morons type a few sentences, and it rains bananas.
SHEFFIELD: If you have enough monkeys, the theory predicts that eventually one will type something very large, such as the Bible or the complete works of William Shakespeare.
BOB: No way.
SHEFFIELD: Sure. The laws of chance make it almost inevitable.
BOB: And that’s what you were going for? The complete Riverside Shakespeare?
SHEFFIELD: Our goal was just the First Folio. You know, thirty-six of the plays. No poems.
BINGO: Poems — phtttt! Get ’em outta here. The play’s what you need.
BOB: And the milestone you’re here to talk about is…?
SHEFFIELD: We did it, Bob. We got Shakespeare. It took twenty years and more than a million monkeys, but we did it.
SHEFFIELD: Well, more specifically, one of our monkeys did it. Typed the entire First Folio —
BINGO: Without an error.
SHEFFIELD: — from start to finish.
BINGO: No mistakes. Not one.
BOB: And that monkey was…?
SHEFFIELD: Actually it was, um… (points to Bingo)
BINGO: That’s right, Bob. Me. All me, baby. I did it. (stands on chair and hoots)
BOB: Oh my god. Are you serious?
BINGO: Forsooth, bitches.
BINGO: Come on, Bob. Up high.
SHEFFIELD: Again, we had a million monkeys working full-time on this for twenty years, and as the theory predicted, one of them got lucky. It happened to be Bingo.
BOB: You typed all of Shakespeare.
SHEFFIELD: Well, just the First Folio. Randomly. By pure luck.
BINGO: Luck, my eye. I typed the greatest works of Shakespeare. What did you type?
SHEFFIELD: Uh, my doctoral dissertation, forty-two published papers, two physics textbooks, and my Nobel acceptance speech.
BINGO: I didn’t hear her say Shakespeare, Bob. Did you?
SHEFFIELD: You’re wearing a diaper, Bingo.
BINGO: And yet, Shakespeare.
BOB: Our viewers will want to know, Bingo. Have you ever actually read Shakespeare?
BINGO: Nope, not a word. I have no formal education. Zero. I just trust my instincts.
BOB: Even more remarkable. Some might call you a genius.
BINGO: Some might say that, Bob, but I’m nothing special. Anyone can do it if they work hard and stay focused. It’s just a matter of pulling yourself up by your own —
SHEFFIELD: Oh, my god. It was random chance, Bob. Don’t you see that? Look at him. He’s a monkey.
BINGO: I don’t sit here and call you fat, Joan.
SHEFFIELD: You’re not sitting, Bingo, you’re standing. On a chair. Because you’re a monkey. And your hair, by the way, just looks —
BOB: Okay, let’s go to the phones. Susie from New York, you’re on the air. Do you have a question for Joan?
SHEFFIELD: Please call me Dr. Sheffield.
CALLER: I’m so glad you mentioned miracle toast, Joan. Last summer my neighbor’s cousin made a piece of toast that was a perfect madonna and child.
BOB: It looked like Mary and the baby Jesus?
CALLER: What? No, I’ve seen pictures of Jesus, and this wasn’t him. It looked like Rocco Ritchie. You know, Guy Ritchie’s boy. And his mom, Madonna.
SHEFFIELD: That’s a great example, Susie. We see thousands of pieces of toast with random patterns on them, and think nothing of it. But if the toast happens to look like someone famous —
CALLER: That’s a miracle?
BINGO: Sure, why not? Trust your instincts.
SHEFFIELD: That’s not what I’m saying.
BOB: Well, now you’ve heard both sides of it, Susie.
SHEFFIELD: There are no sides, Bob. It’s —
BOB: Tiffany from Kansas City, you’re on Phone-in Science News. Do you have a question for the scientists?
SHEFFIELD: Just one scientist. And a monkey.
CALLER: Bingo, I have to ask… are you seeing anyone?
BINGO: As you can imagine, Tiffany, I’ve been very focused on my career. But leave your number with the operator.
BOB: Hello, Marshall from Pittsburgh. America is listening. Do you have a hard question about information and communication?
CALLER: Hey, Bingo, what is your next project going to be?
BINGO: Well, the Institute asked me to type Don Quixote —
SHEFFIELD: No, we didn’t.
BINGO: — but I think I’ll pass. The complete works of Shakespeare, that’s enough of a legacy for me.
CALLER: Have you considered running for office?
SHEFFIELD: Dear god.
BINGO: Never considered it. But you know, I like how it sounds.
BOB: You should think about it, Bingo. You’ve got star power now. What do you say, Joan?
SHEFFIELD: (pause) Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.
BINGO: See, Bob? Even Joan quotes Shakespeare.
BOB: Hello, Steve from Portland. What’s on your mind?
CALLER: I have a comment for Joan. Hi, Joan.
SHEFFIELD: Hello, Steve.
CALLER: I just want to say, these guys clearly don’t get you at all. They’re completely missing the point.
SHEFFIELD: Thank you.
CALLER: Women are supposed to be curvy. As far as I’m concerned, you’re not fat. You’re actually pretty hot.
SHEFFIELD: (removes microphone and walks off set)
(several seconds of silence)
BOB: Okay, thanks, Steve from Portland. Well, Bingo, that leaves you and me. Any final thoughts?
BINGO: Only in America, Bob, can a poor monkey with no education and no assistance of any kind —
SHEFFIELD: (from off set) We fed you and gave you a word processor, you… (unintelligible)
BINGO: — type the complete works of William Shakespeare.
BOB: So true, my friend. What’s your secret?
BINGO: There’s no secret except hard work. You put your hands and feet on the keyboard, and you just keep typing. Lights on, lights off, doesn’t matter.
BOB: Hard work.
BINGO: Right. And try not to type the same letter over and over again.
BOB: You’re an inspiration, sir. I hope we can get you back on the show.
BINGO: Sure thing, Bob. And if you ever need a writer…
BOB: I’ll speak to the producers.
BINGO: Awesome. (points off set) Say, I hope Joan is alright.
BOB: I’m sure she’s fine. Looks like the Security team is helping her out to her car.
SHEFFIELD: (from off set) Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty…(unintelligible)
BOB: That’s Phone-in Science News for tonight, folks. Tune in next week, when our guests will be two climatologists who debate the effect of global warming on women’s hemlines. Goodnight!
BINGO: Goodnight, America!