Discovering omniscience: To infinity and beyond

in Lifestyle/The Science Column by

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will type any given text, even the complete works of William Shakespeare. In this context, the “monkey” is not an actual primate, but a metaphor for an abstract device that produces an endless random sequence of letters and symbols.

Here’s what many people forget—the English alphabet is essentially finite. For any given space, there can only be 26 possible characters that could be used, and if we limit the number of characters to, say, 3,200, there can only be a finite number of combinations of those characters. Granted, an exceedingly large number of combinations will be complete gibberish, but some will be legible, a rare few will be grammatically correct, and some will even be cogent. In fact, there will be combinations that could pass for doctoral theses.

The Library of Babel is a website built by Jonathan Basile that offers, on demand, everything that has been or could be written. Divided into pages, the library produces and locates on demand any 3,200 character combination of English letters, comma, space, and a period. Basile organizes these combinations into hexagon-shaped rooms, each with four walls of books containing five shelves with 32 volumes of 410 pages each.

Please refer to the diagram as I explain the algorithm. Each page is given a unique sequential page number in base 10. The text on each page is then encased inside this number. An algorithm Basile created uses the page number as a seed to generate a unique big number. That output is then converted into base 29 so that it can be represented using every letter in the English alphabet as well as the comma, space, and period. Basile ensures that the algorithm will produce every possible combination, and that the same page number will always create the same output. This means that each page is already predetermined. So in a way, every page already exists—it needs only to be looked up.

The mind blowing fact is that the contents of a page can be converted into base 10, sent through the inverted algorithm and plugged in to give you the exact page number they are found on. This essentially means you can find the permanent location for any 3,200 character text. You can find in this library your college essay, your literature book, your future lab report, and a description of your death. It’s all on the website.
The Library of Babel blurs the line between invention and discovery. Did you really invent something, if a detailed description of your invention was already on the website? Or did you merely discover something that has been there for a long time? The good news is that it will be nearly impossible go through the library as there are 105000 different pages that are up on the Library of Babel. To put things in perspective, there are only 1080 atoms in the whole observable universe. In case you want to keep a memo of this article, we’ll make it easy for you. This article can be found in the Library of Babel: 19xeyyc8ndxsdl32b7c5shvpxpmiit42rbaa5vv…-w4-s1-v20
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