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Cabinet of Curiosities Episode 1 Fact File

You can find all episodes released weekly and freely available here:

I’ve recently been making a documentary miniseries and podcast called “The Cabinet of Curiosities,” looking at the wonderful stories behind items in my own natural history collections. In the course of researching these shows, I’ve come across many a wonderful fact, so I thought I’d share a few in the days and weeks to follow. I very much hope you enjoy:

Fact: In 2003, a team of six macaques at Devon zoo in the UK attempted to reproduce Shakespeare on a keyboard provided to them.

Since Aristotle, there has been a philosophical question: "if you gave an infinite amount of monkeys an infinite amount of typewriters, would they eventually produce Shakespeare's complete works?" As a publicity gimmick and a form of enrichment for the simian authors, Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan were provided with an opportunity to put it to the test.

Of course, it's hardly fair given such limited manpower and a month only as their deadline, so the pressure was on. Writers block set in, and the resulting five pages were filled mostly by the letter ‘s’. Undaunted, they published their work in a limited edition volume entitled Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare, selling for 25 pounds apiece. The work has a single review on Google, whose five-star rating describes it in flowery terms as “sheer brilliance” and a “must-read for any literary critic or connoisseur.”

I wrote that review. It turns out, of the 13,000 characters in the work, 75% are the letter ‘s’, 10% are ‘q’s, 7% are ‘a’s and 4.5% are ‘g’s with a total of 16 letters out of 26 represented. Did they write any words? Strictly speaking, no. They only began to use spaces to separate characters in the final few lines of unintelligible nonsense. That said, I put the work through two popular spell-checkers, which gave 0 and 15 errors respectively- far less than the first Harry Potter book that comes out at about 1000! If you discount the need for spaces, then a scrabble dictionary will provide half a dozen words and initialisms hidden therein: from blood-potassium medication to well-armed submarines, politics and sports jargon, as well as the staple ‘aa’ referring to a variety of lava flow.

The little experiment drew to an end when the dominant male was observed trying the beat the keyboard with a stone. Others defecated on its protective casing.

Fact: Sharks have spiral-shaped poo.

This is because of the peculiar design of their intestines, which are squashed into a tiny space by their kidneys. Like a waterslide, food items travel around the corkscrew, and if they're too large, bypass the valve at the far end so as to continue cycling around. It also gives them a much larger surface area by which to absorb nutrients- really rather clever! I must admit, this is a rather unsavoury subject to research. Google doesn't seem to understand the difference between humans and sharks, so I managed to get a lot of advice on the meaning of my poo shape. Corkscrew funnily didn't appear! If you're wondering, this isn't all sharks. Fossilized shark poos specifically retain this characteristic shape. For many sharks, it comes out as a gush of stuff, and only some species allow for neat pellets. Shark poo is very handy for researchers, because for some reason or other they don't want to catch sharks to take cell samples and learn about their health & diet. Poos are the substitute. Incidentally, shark poo is green.

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