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Searching for Signs of Shakespeare

Most writers have heard the old saying about the Bard and the chimps: Gather 100 monkeys (or similarly hirsute primates) in a room, give them typewriters, and sooner or (more likely) later, they’ll deliver the complete works of Shakespeare. Nick Hoggard, a British computer programmer living in Sweden, has decided to put the theory—often attributed to Thomas Huxley, a 19th-century disciple of Charles Darwin—to the test.

Hoggard designed “The Monkey Shakespeare Simulator,” which can be found online at www.aardasnails.com, to find out how many lines of Shakespeare a group of hypothetical simians could come up with if given a limitless amount of time.

“I got the idea from the SETI@home software, which examines radio waves for signs of extraterrestrial life,” Hoggard says. “I thought I would apply the same idea to examine random rubbish that monkeys type for signs of Shakespeare.”

Hoggard explains on the Web site that the simulation “is based on a random number generator to generate random keystrokes.” In other words, it’s a computer program based entirely on chance.

So, how much Shakespeare can monkeys write? The answer, it turns out, is not much. Over the course of billions of cyber-years—the simulator runs at a highly accelerated rate in the hopes that it “creates interesting results in our lifetimes”—the cyber-monkeys’ best showing is a match of 23 words from Timon of Athens.

Kevin Canfield is a journalist in New York City.

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Searching for Signs of Shakespeare (May/June 2005)

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