Much ado about nothing is making a money of science

What do you get if you put six monkeys, one computer and £2,000 together in a science lab? asks Iain Murray. A monkey’s tale told by a bunch of research idiots

Every so often scientists demand to be taken seriously. Put us in a soap opera, they plead. Popularise us. Make us better understood. Rid us of this awful image of being somehow sinister.

It’s all a waste of breath. The problem with what I suppose we must call the scientific community is that it is so large and diverse. At one, extreme you have the serious stuff – double helixes, DNA, the stuff of life – and at the other you have the pretend sciences of sociology and the like. Somewhere in between are the white-coated villains we love to hate, busily working away on designer babies and Frankenstein foods and torturing puppy dogs.

And for all their supposed detachment and objectivity, scientists, no less than the rest of us, are vain and ambitious. They yearn to have their work published, they hanker for their 15 minutes in the limelight, and they long ago discovered that the best and quickest way to achieve the publicity they crave is to scare us all to death. So we are daily bombarded with the news that just about everything we eat is dangerous, and that life-threatening hazards lie in wait in the most innocuous corners of existence.

Hats off, then, to the folk at the University of Plymouth (formerly the Polytechnic of Plymouth Ho! Ho! Ho!) who have shown that scientific research is not the exclusive province of highly trained brains, it is also accessible to idiots. Faced with the problem of how to spend £2,000 of public money, lecturer Geoffrey “call me Geoff” Cox decided to test the old saying that if an infinite number of monkeys tapped away at an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, they would produce the complete works of Shakespeare.

The experiment was fated from the outset because he was forced to compromise. Not even a grant of £2,000 from the Arts Council (note that its name does not prevent it from being unable to distinguish art from science) was sufficient to obtain an infinite number of monkeys, let alone an infinite number of keyboards. In any case, where do you obtain an infinite number of monkeys? Not even Tesco could help. Never mind, Geoff and his team of students settled for six monkeys and one keyboard attached to a computer, and, lacking an infinite amount of time, confined the experiment to four weeks.

The results, dear reader, were exactly as you and I would have imagined. First, the monkeys attempted to destroy the computer, then they peed on it, and finally they bashed away at one key repeatedly. Not a single proper word emerged from their efforts. No surprise there, then. Nor any in the comment of the spokesman for the Arts Council Nicholas “call me Nick” Capaldi, who said, “There has been talk in the news recently about artificial life, and this project shows how important this area is in people’s minds.” You can see how the monkeys’ work has rubbed off on him since not a single proper thought emerges from that sentence.

However, the experiment is a reminder of the wonderful Bob Newhart monologue in which he imagines scientists testing the infinite number of monkeys theory. His monitor is touring the lab, looking over the shoulders of the monkeys as they tap away at their typewriters and relaying the findings to Charlie in the control booth. Suddenly, the monitor becomes excited. “Hey, Charlie,” he shouts, “I think we’ve got something here. Number 17685. ‘To be, or not to be, that is the gazornenplat’.”

More recently, another American wit observed that although it is said that if an infinite number of monkeys tapped at an infinite number of keyboards they would create the works of Shakespeare, thanks to the internet, we now know that it is not true.

However, a few thousand miles to the west of the students’ playpen and the monkeys’ enclosure down in Devon, lie the research labs of North America, where there is less fun to be had. Scientists at Princeton University fed an infinite amount of high-fat, high-sugar food to an infinite number of rats for an infinite time (well, all right, not quite for infinity, but there must have been times when, for the rats, it felt like that). When the food was removed the rats became agitated. The conclusion to be drawn is obvious: rodents don’t like to be messed with; they get quite ratty, in fact. To the scientist, though, there is a much more sinister inference: fast-food is as addictive as nicotine and heroin and alters the brain in the same way. And that, in turn, is wonderful news for the lawyers lining up to sue McDonald’s, Burger King and the like for causing health problems.

Back in Plymouth, Dr Victoria “call me Vicky” Melfi, research associate, says, “We weren’t surprised the monkeys didn’t write a great deal. They are extremely intelligent, but have evolved in a completely different niche where they don’t need Shakespeare.”

Nor, intelligent as they are, do they need scientists or lawyers. Put a lawyer into a monkey’s cage and the animal will, with luck, first attempt to take him apart and look at his innards, then pee on him, and finally bash him repeatedly. One day we might acquire the sense to do the same. It’s called evolution.


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