Friday, January 15, 2010

Original thought and the monkey equation

When I was in College I took a technical writing course. (I know... you're shocked.) In the course we were given guidelines regarding the proper citation and use of sources. This was before Wikipedia existed. Plagiarism was warned against in the strongest terms, as it should be.

A friend of mine just graduated after going back to school. He recently told me he ran his papers through an online citation checker which generated a list of sources for different statements he'd written. The funny thing about it is that on some of these papers he didn't actually do any research. He knew what he knew, he typed it up, and gave someone else the credit. If these weren't his original thoughts, how can we be sure that the person cited for one of his points was the originator of the thought?

What is original thought? One of the guidelines I was given in class was to use the most recent sources. I disagree. Take for example the Arrhenius equation. k = A e^{{-E_a}/{RT}} It's not exactly recent, but is it original? Who came up with it? It might surprise you to learn that it was first proposed, not by Svante Arrhenius, but by Dutch chemist J. H. van 't Hoff.

There are such things as foundational principles. The Arrhenius equation stands at the heart of many other equations derived after it, and is a foundational empirical equation. In physics and engineering it is much easier to identify the foundational principles than it is in say, sociology. I get the distinct impression that my english teacher was more comfortable with the social sciences, where theories change by the month. My heat and mass transport book was 30 years old, and still perfectly relevant.

There is such thing as original thought, in the hard sciences or otherwise, although we may or may not know its genesis. It is probably easier to find the source when dealing with the hard sciences. I don't envy the sociologists, whose theories often can't be proven or dis-proven, but are often easily accepted anyway, nor can they be reduced to concise equations. (note: The phenomenon of Anthropogenic global warming is more easily understood from a social/psychological perspective, once you have dispatched with the falsehoods)

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet. There are millions of books in the library. I'm sure there has to be a considerable amount of overlap in those books. This could probably be measured using the text of online books, maybe even with a search engine such as Google. I assume there would be a geometrically decreasing relationship to this overlap, this stepping on each others toes, that has nothing whatsoever to do with plagiarism. Three word overlaps would be greater by an order of magnitude than four word overlaps etc. The empirically derived formula could be called the infinite monkey theorem equation, or the Brent equation, unless you don't believe I came up with it first. Not familiar with the infinite monkey theorem? It is the theory behind adding more and more programmers to a project in the hopes that you'll ship on time... OK, just kidding. I think it actually describes an IRS department. Don't believe me? You could check Wikipedia (, which has no less than 30 citations for the linked article. The rule is it cannot be considered original thought unless you found it on Wikipedia, then it's as worthless as your original thoughts.

We all think. We all stand educationally on the shoulders of giants. It should be no surprise that some of our thoughts, although originally conceived within our own minds, are not new to the world, and in many cases weren't new to the people who first jotted them down. Inspiration is a trait we all can lay claim to at one time or another. Until I find out otherwise, I'm taking credit for figuring that one out.

Never mind. I just read this. Don't quote me.

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