By Jon Singerton |

You’ve heard about them haven’t you? Everyone has at some point. Maybe it was in a high school science class or during an awkward fresher’s party conversation or perhaps the internet first told you about them. Or, just maybe, you’ve never heard about them before.

So who are they? They’re space monkeys. And yes this might initially sound like the start of a conspiracy theory, but bear with me. It’s actually a serious scientific debate called the Infinite Monkey Theorem.

If you get a group of infinite monkeys together, then give them each a typewriter with infinite ink, and crucially, an infinitive amount of time – so the theory goes – they will almost surely type out the complete works of William Shakespeare. In fact it can also be done with just one single monkey and a splash of infinite time.

And here’s the chilling realisation for us all as PhD students. If these monkeys type for an infinite amount of time, they won’t just type out Hamlet et al they’ll type out everything there could possibly be written. Included in that output, logically, is my PhD thesis and every variant (bad draft and defendable version) there will ever exist of it. There might even be a miraculous perfect version that’ll pass the viva with no corrections, albeit monkey-authored.

There’s a lot at stake in this race between the monkeys and me then. After all, imagine how problematic it would be if they submit to Turnitin before I do? And the race can feel pretty close at times since the monkeys have many advantages:

  1. For starters, they outnumber me to the extreme (one versus infinity).
  2. They have a lot of time (all of time to be precise), which is something we PhDs have to manage.
  3. I doubt they have had to scour some obscure archives for their material (it is just random hitting on the keys after all).
  4. There’s not much that separates my day to day posture from chimps with a typewriter (if we substitute that typewriter with a mac that is).

Welcome to my Friday mornings.

If you want more proof that this race is close, look back to 2011 when the monkeys, already having a head start, polished off one of Shakespeare’s poems. Even though it’s predicted they may need another couple of billion years to get the rest of the job done, this is comparable to my own research timetable.

These monkeys can have a positive influence on the PhD process however. And so here’s why thinking about existential space monkeys can be good for your health – monkeys are a good source of motivation.

We all share that angst of someone (or in this case something) beating us to the publishers with on the same or similar topic. The nature of doctoral research that focuses on a relatively narrow angle or topic can compel us to be quite territorial about our original research, otherwise it wouldn’t be so original.  It can be hard to keep going with this worry constantly playing on your mind.

Of course there’s lots of ways to derive your motivation. Some have morning music to get up to or energising work music to listen to – nothing beats 1970s Austropop for that! Building a supportive environment of friends and colleagues is vital, of course setting yourself rigid but realistic deadlines is just as important, but breaks are too.

What I’m trying to say is that we all have our ways of motivation. But for me there’s nothing like some existential fear of the monkeys and the impending threat that they are already sending their primate supervisor my thesis.

 

Jon currently is enjoying a break from the space monkey race after completing his first year review earlier this week. He also suffers from Lepidopterophobia, so if you’re not a butterfly-lover then you can find him on twitter and academia.edu.

(Cover image (c) www.wikimedia.org; Image 1 (c) https://www.flickr.com/photos/55524309@N05/)