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18th Aug 2010, 4:42 PM in A Beautiful Line

The Thrill of Academia

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The Thrill of Academia
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C. Glen Williams 18th Aug 2010, 4:42 PM edit delete
There are times when I can't help but feel that they are talking down to us. Not out of any disrespect, but because they know the ideas are very, very complex.


Of course, sometimes they're Michael Crichton, and in addition to talking down to us, they're just plain damned wrong. Ian Malcolm is responsible for more misunderstandings about chaos theory than any number of poorly-worded metaphors or thought exercises.

The most popular misunderstood illustrative anecdote is monkeys and typewriters. An infinite number of monkeys (sometimes quoted as 1,000) at an infinite number of typewriters (again, sometimes 1,000) for an infinite amount of time (always quoted as "infinite") will eventually produce Hamlet (or the complete works of Shakespeare, or Moby Dick-- the point is, they'll eventually produce not just passable prose, but great literature).

A lot of people who hear this idea seem to neglect the whole "infinite" thing. The point being that it won't happen because you don't have infinite monkeys, you don't have infinite typewriters, and the Writers' Guild demands at least a netbook for any monkey contracted to produce literary work. How else could they hold their monkey heads high at Monkey Starbucks?

Less quoted, but just as misunderstood, is the idea that if you were to push against a wall for an infinite amount of time, eventually your molecules would line up with the molecules of the wall in precisely the right order for you to pass right through the solid structure.

Again -- people miss the whole "infinite" part of that equation.

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