Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Genealogy in 2017 - The Infinite Monkey Theorem

By New York Zoological Society - This file was derived from  Chimpanzee seated at a typewriter.tif:, Public Domain,
Quoting from the Wikipedia article, "Infinite monkey theorem:"
The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. In fact the monkey would almost surely type every possible finite text an infinite number of times. However, the probability that monkeys filling the observable universe would type a complete work such as Shakespeare's Hamlet is so tiny that the chance of it occurring during a period of time hundreds of thousands of orders of magnitude longer than the age of the universe is extremely low (but technically not zero). 
In this context, "almost surely" is a mathematical term with a precise meaning, and the "monkey" is not an actual monkey, but a metaphor for an abstract device that produces an endless random sequence of letters and symbols. One of the earliest instances of the use of the "monkey metaphor" is that of French mathematician Émile Borel in 1913, but the first instance may have been even earlier.
Unfortunately, this time-worn theorem is now hopelessly out of date. We have a whole generation of young people who have never even seen an actual typewriter. But I am not so much interested in whether or not the hypothetical monkey could produce the complete works of William Shakespeare, because, as genealogists, we have started our own "infinite monkey" exercise. For genealogists, the theorem should read something like this:
Can an infinite number of genealogists randomly hitting keys on an infinite number of computers for a relatively infinite period of time produce one believable family tree?
For me, 2017 was a good year for illustrating the type of content that genealogists can produce by random typing. One example occurred recently when a user of the family tree modified one entry for a relative to show that his parents were four years old when he was born. I can only guess that the number picked for the birth date of my relative was random since there was no source attached showing where the number originated.

Since there are now millions of family trees online from millions of aspiring genealogists, one can only suppose that any conceivable relationship has now been generated. For years, the genealogical literature has been highlighted by articles asking if we are related to some celebrity or another. With the proliferation of online family trees, we are almost guaranteed to be related to everyone on the face of the earth so why not celebrities? I must be getting really out of touch because I have no idea concerning the identity of most of the celebrities featured in the articles and I might be related. For example, one featured celebrity was a singer named Pat Benatar who we learn from the article was born Patricia Mae Andrzejewski. I guess I am not related to John Wayne either since his name was Marion Mitchell Morrison.

Who would have guessed at the beginning of 2017, I would be living in Annapolis, Maryland and be working in a State Archive? I guess those infinite number of monkeys were working overtime on my 2017 genealogy year.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Tanner,

    First let me say how much I enjoy your videos on the BYU youtube channel.

    Second, for the reason you just cited regarding FamilySearch, I no longer use FS for my family trees. Although I do use the site for locating documents, the frustration in trying to keep my ancestors' information corrected is just too much.

    I have three ancestors in particular that I have had to correct at least six or seven times each; each time I get the information corrected, someone changes is back to totally erroneous, unsourced data.

    I do like the idea of a "one world tree" in theory, but in practice I've found it's just not worth my sanity.