JF Ptak Science Books Post 2118 Part of the series A History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things
Concevons qu’on ait dressé un million de singes à frapper au hasard sur les touches d’une machine à écrire … [translation: Let us imagine a million monkeys typing haphazardly on typewriters …”1
There are some ideas that leave me with a powerful sense of nothing.
To me, "nothing" can be very important--especially in writing and speaking and action, doing or saying nothing has been the important and the correct thing to do. "Nothing" isn't necessarily an ending, and, just a period or a coma, can just be a placeholder for something that is developing. There can be long nothings and short one, forever- and micro-nothings, and nothing that is nothing for almost nothing. Nothing can be implied, insinuated, broadcast and defined, though self-defined extended nothingnesses (like John Cage's 4'33") is a tricky thing to make happen with success.
The ideas that leave me with a sense of nothing are interesting things. And there are a lot of them. When I can remember them they are in my nothing file, waiting for nothing--or something--to happen.
This is the sense I had when I was trying to explain randomness to my 10-year-old daughter and her 11-year-old cousin, sitting out in a park, looking at stuff. Somehow I reached into the past and pulled up the infinite monkey theorem, and tried to make that interesting, but just couldn't do it. Maybe it was the difficulty of super-large numbers, or the fascinating but incomprehensible thought-threats of Borges and his infinite library, but I was left with nothing.
It is Borges who writes a lovely piece on the history of producing everything from nothing, appearing in his "The Total Library" in 1939 (and then again in "The Library of Babel" in 19412), reviewing machines and such of spectacular randomization that could produce the whole of what we recognize as what we know.
Emile Borel wrote on it in 1913, finding the possibility of one million monkeys pounding away at one million typewriters. In his wonderful work, The Math Book3, Cliff Pickover looks at 250 big ideas in the history of mathematics and gives each of them one page only for presentation and explanation. He approaches the infinite monkey theorem by looking at one monkey wailing away at one typewriter, striking the keys, and analyzing how long it might take for the one monkey to produce one line from one book. The line is "In the beginning..." at the beginning of one great nothingness, from the Old Testament, a 56-object sentence (including punctuation and spaces) and, Pickover reasons, that if there is a 93-character keyboard,then this monkey will have a 1/9356 possibility times 10100 of getting it right, and that if it worked for 24 hours a day striking one key every second then it will have used all of the time in the present universe--the Big Bang Monkey.
All I got back were big stares, and a big sense of nothing in my gut. It reminded me of the cartoon featured above, a toss-off sub-cartoon in a panel of the Gasoline Alley series. Did he actually look at the coin? Did he just decide to keep it? And why keep a phoney nickel? And who counterfeits nickels, even during the Depression? What is the outcome of the panels--just some guy walking down the street with a nickel in his pocket. Something may have happened, but it was a lot of nothing.
I know that I should have a bigger sense of what Felix Edouard Justin Emile Borel and Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges were writing about and in many ways I do, but in the end I know that I am left with nothing. But I have it in my pocket.Notes
1. Émile Borel (1913). "Mécanique Statistique et Irréversibilité". Statistical mechanics and irreversibility) J. Phys. 5e série 3: 189–196.
2. Jorge Borges, "La biblioteca total" (The Total Library), Sur No. 59, August 1939. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, in Selected Non-Fictions (Penguin: 1999)
3. Clifford Pickover, The Math Book, (2009), Sterling, page 328.