The Laboratory Shakespeare

A scientist and a monkey discuss the Infinite Monkey Theorem (humor)

Tufted capuchin monkey — photo by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

SHEFFIELD: Hello.

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.

BINGO: (coughs)

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?

SHEFFIELD: (nods)

BINGO: Forsooth, bitches.

BOB: Incredible!

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.

BINGO: Right.

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.

BOB: Amazing.

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!