Thursday, 29 September 2011

Facing facts

Scientists have a pretty tough time of it. Despite dedicating their lives to the betterment of society, in certain parts of the world they’re still depicted as godless heretics. Even now, in 2011, climate change experts in the U.S. are being treated to the same hostility that greeted Galileo’s initial observation that the horizon looked a bit bendy.

Thankfully, although the voices of ignorance might be growing ever louder, it’s comforting to see that humanity’s basic hunger for knowledge and understanding continues unabated. My grasp of science may have faded shortly after growing copper sulphate crystals on a coffee-stirrer, but I still salute the brave men and women in white coats willing to spend decades painstakingly unlocking the mysteries of the world around us, and capturing it all on a dog-eared clipboard.

The key to engaging the wider world in scientific debate lies in conducting experiments that the lay-person might understand. Or better still, give a single solitary shit about. So it’s heartening to note that two pleb-friendly experiments are currently underway in order to prove once and for all, whether two popular hypotheses have any scientific viability.

Take the ‘Infinite Monkey’ theorem for example. It’s long been used as an explanation of probability, stating that if given an infinite amount of time, a room full of monkeys with typewriters would eventually type out the entire works of Shakespeare, purely by accident. An addendum to the theory posits that, if given just twenty minutes and fag break, they could crank out the next couple of Katie Price paperbacks. And to be fair, it’s a fuck of a sight cheaper than paying a ghost-writer.

Obviously, infinity is a tricky thing to simulate in a lab, especially where time is concerned. So the experiment currently taking place involves virtual monkeys and hypothetical typewriters. Replicating the behaviour of millions of touch-typing simians, this particular software programme bashes out random sequences of letters, then compares the output to the works of Shakespeare to identify any correlation. According to the brainiacs, the experiment has already successfully produced a little-known Shakespeare poem called ‘A Lover’s Complaint’. If I remember my English Literature A-Level correctly, the poem begins: “Will you please stop fucking typing and turn the light out.”

But that’s not all. In a classic case of glass-half-full reporting, the scientists claim that the android apes have already recreated 99.99 per cent of Shakespeare’s work. The only catch is that they haven’t been typed in order, which kind of defeats the purpose of the experiment. I mean, by that reasoning, I could argue that I wrote the shooting scripts for the second and third seasons of The Wire. Just not in the order they were filmed or broadcast.

The sweet postscript to all this ridiculousness, is that a similar experiment took place several years ago in Paignton Zoo. Although on a much smaller scale than its binary equivalent, this version did at least involve real live monkeys and an actual typewriter. Sadly, the observers noted that “Not only did the monkeys produce nothing but five pages consisting largely of the letter S, they began by attacking the keyboard with a stone, then proceeded to urinate and defecate on it." It's like peering through the window of Melanie Phillips' study.

Another popular concept currently undergoing some form of live testing is the ‘Six Degrees’ theory. Most people’s knowledge of this particular concept stems from the movie buffs’ preferred drinking game: “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. If you’ve never heard of it, please give my regards to the village elders. Everyone else already knows that the game challenges players to connect the loose-footed actor to anyone else in the Hollywood pantheon, in six moves or less.

What most people don’t know, is that the phrase was originally coined in 1967, by a Harvard sociologist called Stanley Milgram, who sent 300 letters to randomly selected people in Omaha, instructing them to try and forward the message to a stockbroker in Boston. Armed only with the recipient’s basic details, participants were expected to send the letter on to someone who might be ‘closer’ to the target than they were. As it happens, twenty per cent of the letters successfully reached their target in an average of six moves. This led Milgram to conclude that most of us are connected to pretty much anyone else on the planet via just six degrees of separation.

Given the way Facebook has transformed our social connections and opened up dialogue between people around the world, Yahoo’s research department is keen to replicate the original test using the social network’s 750 million users. Called ‘The Small World Experiment’ this exercise will test Milgram’s original hypothesis using a voluntary combination of test subjects and ‘target persons’.

Although it’s a smart idea, and will no doubt turn up some interesting results, the experiment is likely to be marred by the widespread issue of Facebook fatigue. We’ve all got friends who feel the need to post ridiculous chain letter status updates on a regular basis. You know the sort – shouty uppercase statements that usually reveal more about your acquaintances’ latent racism than you really wanted to know.

As much as I’d like the experiment to be an unqualified success, I have a horrible feeling that people who're desperate for a little attention will start fabricating their own letters and attempting to convince their networks to pass it on. Rather than trying to prove how well connected we all are in this age of social networking, maybe a more interesting study would investigate how many of us actually want to be. As for me, if anyone sends me the message and wonders why I didn’t immediately forward it, I’ll just tell them a monkey shat on my laptop. 

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