Monday, 3rd February 2014

by Joshua Gaskell

In “A Tritical Essay Upon the Faculties of the Mind” (1711), Jonathan Swift mocked the idea that, ‘The accidental jumbling of the Letters in the Alphabet would fall by chance into a most ingenius and learned Treatise of Philosophy’. But the Infinite Monkey Theorem – making a serious point about the nature of infinity – states that just such a thing might happen.

The theorem is that a monkey at a typewriter, given an infinite amount of time, would almost surely type the complete works of Shakespeare. The simian imagery probably originated in a sentence from Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World. That book was published in 1928, but it was not until much later that there emerged at the academy a species of modern critic who would be happy to pore over every siglarian variant of the monkey’s drafts. Which takes us, lemniscatusly, back to Swift. Risum teneatis, amici?