Appropriately called the “infinite monkey theorem”, it’s one of the more visually amusing demonstrations of statistics and probability. It has been attributed to Émile Borel in 1913, but since that time, technology has advanced in leaps and bounds. Computers are now able to handle such fantastically impossible tasks, and it just doesn’t make sense to have that many monkeys around. I do not envy the HR rep who has to give an infinite amount of exit interviews.
Enter The Library of Babel, a website based on the Jorge Luis Borges short story about an infinite library containing every possible combination of letters bound in 410-page volumes. In the story, hidden amidst countless books filled with nonsense, was not only every book that was ever written, but also every book that would ever be written. It was the sum of human knowledge.
The library’s digital counterpart was made by writer and coder Jonathan Basile, and hopes to one day contain every combination of 1,312,000 characters. Arranged in hexagonal rooms, each with four walls that have five shelves containing 32 books each, it currently contains about 104677 books. It’s massive. And while you’re welcome to journey through the library book by book in search of the one that has your favorite Led Zeppelin lyric or the next science fiction masterpiece, it could be a long time before you stumbled upon one that contained a real word, much less a coherent sentence.
Luckily, you don’t have to do that. Since the library is generated by an algorithm that creates each unique combination of 3,200-character pages, all assigned to—and generated by—the page number, every page already exists. The infinite library is searchable. With little effort, you can find your name, a Shakespearean sonnet, or even the first paragraph of this post—all assigned a page number in a book that you can go back and reference at another time.
That’s pretty wild. Go on over and explore the Library of Babel yourself. Let me know if you find anything cool hidden away in the depths! If you want to know more about how the algorithm works, Michael at Vsauce does a really good job explaining it.
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