Cigar Society of Chicago

The Lounge at Iwan Ries, 19 S. Wabash Av, 2d Floor
Tuesday, February 4, 2020, 5:30-8:30 pm

Cocktails and cigars at 5:30, with the presentation at 6:00 for about 30 minutes.
A mashup of eclectic cocktail conversation follows. Reservations are required.


You have doubtless heard that six monkeys typing at random on six typewriters will eventually type out the complete works of Shakespeare. How can this be?

How can it be that a purely random process could produce something that we know to require a reading and writing knowledge of the English language; an understanding of the structure of a sonnet in terms of meter and rhyme; knowledge of how dialogs are constructed and dramatic sequences are created; and, in the case of the works of Shakespeare, immense creative genius.

Monkeys typing with purposeless, random motions could do that? Come on.

And it's not just Shakespeare we're talking about. In Émile Borel's original formulation of the Parable of the Monkeys (1913-14), he imagined that a million monkeys on a million typewriters would eventually type out all the books in the Bibliothèque nationale. (Gilbert Lewis targeted the library of the British Museum in 1926, Sir James Jeans targeted the works of Shakespeare in 1930.)

And it gets worse—or should we say, gets even more interesting?

It is not only that all existing pieces of literature would eventually be typed out, but also everything else that has been lost or has not already been written. The true story of all of your boss's secret affairs, for example, plus all the salacious stories that are false but still believable, plus mountains of nonsense.

The Argentine poet and essayist Jorge Luis Borges enumerated some of these items in his essay on the related notion of The Total Library (1939) and in his famous short story, The Library of Babel (1940): the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus's The Egyptians, my dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, the proof of Pierre Fermat's theorem, the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, those same chapters translated into the language spoken by the Garamantes, the paradoxes Berkeley invented concerning Time but didn't publish, the treatise that Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus, the true story of your death. Everything!

In Russell Maloney's short story, Inflexible Logic, in the New Yorker (1941), his protagonist Mr. Bainbridge noted that one of his band of precocious monkeys had typed out the complete diaries of Samuel Pepys, including the "naughty passages" omitted from Bainbridge's own bowdlerized version.

The catch—in Borges's words—is that "for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be untold millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings." All the generations of mankind could pass by—as the mountains of monkey-generated manuscript obliterated the sky—before ever being rewarded with a single, tolerable page. (It seems that Borges may have prefigured the modern internet, in some ways.)

This talk will be a brief introduction to the Parable of the Monkeys and its dual notion, the Universal Library, in terms of literature, philosophy, science, and mathematics.

If you have time before or after the talk,we recommend these two pieces of short fiction: Maloney's Inflexible Logic (1940) and Borges's Library of Babel (1941).

Curtis Tuckey has a PhD in mathematical logic from the University of Wisconsin and a bachelor's degree in physics from Michigan State. He has taught mathematics and computer science at Loyola, DePaul, and Northwestern, and has worked as a researcher and software engineering manager at Bell Labs (AT&T), Motorola, and Oracle. His professional interests include voice technologies, software for enterprise collaboration, and cloud computing. His scholarly interests include mathematical logic and its applications, science in literature, and literate science.

About the Cigar Society of Chicago

ONE OF THE OLDEST AND greatest traditions of the city clubs of Chicago is the discussion of intellectual, social, legal, artistic, historical, scientific, musical, theatrical, and philosophical issues in the company of educated, bright, and appropriately provocative individuals, all under the beneficent influence of substantial amounts of tobacco and spirits.  The Cigar Society of Chicago embraces this tradition and extends it with its Informal Smokers, University Series lectures, and Cigar Society Dinners, in which cigars, and from time to time pipes and cigarettes, appear as an important component of our version of the classical symposium.  To be included in the Cigar Society's mailing list, write to the secretary at