362. Monkeys and the Balance of Probabilities

The day finally came. Out of the monkey-typewriter room Arnold came, and tucked under his arm were two hundred typewritten pages. On the cover, printed in neat courier fonts, were the words KING LEAR BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

He dumped it on Dr. Cobble’s table and left early that Friday, spending the weekend daydreaming of the things he would say in press conferences after he wins his Nobel Prize.

The news came in early Tuesday morning. Arnold went into Dr. Cobble’s office.

“Sit,” Dr. Cobble gestured to the sturdy leather chair in front of his desk. Arnold sat, barely containing his excitement. Leaned back in his head, Dr. Cobble seemed to study him.

“I received your folder,” Dr. Cobble said at last. “Interesting.”

Arnold grinned. “You read it. No?”

Dr. Cobble nodded. “So I did,” he said, tapping his finger on the brown paper folder on his desk. Then with one hand he pushed it back towards Arnold. “But I’m afraid it’s no good.”

Arnold’s face fell. “What… What do you mean, it’s no good?” he could feel something rising within him. It wasn’t quite anger, and neither was it despair, but something in between the two. “We did it right, didn’t we? Put the monkeys in the typewriter room and put them to work, and there you go. There we have the working proof of balance of probabilities! What do you mean it’s no good?”

Dr. Cobble shook his head. “Have you read through it?”

“Yes, I did. Checked every word.”

“Evidently, you did not check hard enough. Look at Act II.”

Arnold tore open the folder and flipped through the loose sheets.

“Scene Two,” Dr. Cobble added. “The conversation between Oswald and Kent. Line 1087.”

Arnold stared hard at the page. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. “A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meat,” he read. “A base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound…”

Dr. Cobble stopped him. “Before that,” he said. “After the knave and rascal bit.”

“An eater of broken meat?”

Dr. Cobble nodded.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing a simple Google search wouldn’t tell you, Arnold. I expected better from you.”

Dr. Cobble turned his computer screen to face Arnold. There on an open source site, Arnold saw the words of Shakespeare in plain font. “A knave; a rascal; and eater of broken meats,” he read. He stopped and stared at Dr. Cobble, who was looking at him as though he should understand. He did not.

“So?” Arnold put his hands up.

“So?” Dr. Cobble returned an insulted look. “It’s all wrong, of course. Instead of “meats” that is in the Shakespearean text, your monkey wrote “meat” instead.”

“So it’s missing on “s”. Big deal.”

Dr. Cobble shook his head again. “You don’t understand, do you? This doesn’t work if even one letter is out of place – and now we see that at least one is.”

Now it was Arnold’s turn to look insulted. “And what about the other 99.99% that the monkey got right?” he said. “Doesn’t that count for something? Anything? So it made a typo – half the brilliant minds in this facility make a hundred times that number of typographical mistakes in a single day!”

“It’s no good,” Dr. Cobble insisted. “The scientific community–“

“The scientific community should be bloody amazed, that’s what they should be!” Arnold raised his voice. “The insignificance of one letter out of place–“

“Proves that the theory is still fallible,” Dr. Cobble interrupted. “It still does not prove that monkeys hitting keys on a typewriter at random is able to reproduce the works of Shakespeare.”

“But it’s damn close to it, isn’t it? The monkey even got the formatting right!”

“And yet it isn’t. The difference between the almost right version and the right version, Arnold…”

Arnold screamed something to the effect of “the almost right version cane go and —- itself”. “The wonder, dear doctor,” he said, “Is not that the monkey can type the works of Shakespeare, but that the monkey types legible words at all.”

Dr. Cobble returned an expression as hard as granite, saying nothing.

Arnold shoved the sheets back into the document and stood up. “I guess I’ll be taking my leave, doctor,” he said. “Goodbye.”

He left.

Only when the door was closed did Dr. Cobble allow himself to sigh in relief. He had expected Arnold to get much more worked up – to the point of violence, even. But it did not have to come to that, and he was thankful.

And then the door burst open, revealing a panicked research assistant.

“Dr. Cobble, you need to come quick,” she said. “Arnold is… loosing the test subjects.”

He could hear the sounds of shrieks echoing down the corridors. Not all of them were human shrieks. Linda grimaced, waiting for him to do something.

Dr. Cobble sighed.

“Call security,” he said. When Linda disappeared out of sight, he locked the door after her, then returned to his desk and buried his face in his hands.

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