Culturomics, Ngrams and new power tools for Science

August 10, 2011

Posted by Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, Visiting Faculty at Google

Four years ago, we set out to create a research engine that would help people explore our cultural history by statistically analyzing the world’s books. In January 2011, the resulting method, culturomics, was featured on the cover of the journal Science. More importantly, Google implemented and launched a web-based version of our prototype research engine, the Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Now scientists, scholars, and web surfers around the world can take advantage of the Ngram Viewer to study a vast array of phenomena. And that's exactly what they've done. Here are a few of our favorite examples.

Martin Ravallion, head of the Development Research Group at the World Bank, has been using the ngrams to study the history of poverty. In a paper published in the journal Poverty and Public Policy, he argues for the existence of two ‘poverty enlightenments’ marked by increased awareness of the problem: one towards the end of the 18th century, and another in the 1970s and 80s. But he makes the point that only the second of these enlightenments brought with it a truly enlightened idea: that poverty can be and should be completely eradicated.

The Science Hall of Fame
Adrian Veres and John Bohannon wondered who the most famous scientists of the past two centuries were. But there was no hall of fame for scientists, or a committee that determines who deserves to get into such a hall. So they used the ngrams data to define a metric for celebrity – the milliDarwin – and algorithmically created a Science Hall of Fame listing the most famous scientists born since 1800. They found that things like a popular book or a major controversy did more to increase discussion of a scientist than, for instance, winning a Nobel Prize.

(Other users have been exploring the history of particular sciences with the Ngram Viewer, covering everything from neuroscience to the nuclear age.)

The History of Typography
When we introduced the Ngram Viewer, we pointed out some potential pitfalls with the data. For instance, the ‘medial s’ ( ſ ), an older form of the letter s that looked like an integral sign and appeared in the beginning or middle of words, tends to be classified as an instance of the letter ‘f’ by the OCR algorithm used to create our version of the data. Andrew West, blogging at Babelstone, found a clever way to exploit this error: using queries like ‘husband’ and ‘hufband’ to study the history of medial s typography, he pinned down the precise moment when the medial s disappeared from English (around 1800), French (1780), and Spanish (1760).

People are clearly having a good time with the Ngram Viewer, and they have been learning a few things about science and history in the process. Indeed, the tool has proven so popular and so useful that Google recently announced that its imminent graduation from Google Labs to become a permanent part of Google Books.

Similar ‘big data’ approaches can also be applied to a wide variety of other problems. From books to maps to the structure of the web itself, 'the world's information' is one amazing dataset.

Erez Lieberman Aiden is Visiting Faculty at Google and a Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows. Jean-Baptiste Michel is Visiting Faculty at Google and a Postdoctoral Fellow in Harvard's Department of Psychology.