Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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16-Dec-2010

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Introducing the new field of 'culturomics'



Books are an important part of our cultural genome, the information that we pass on from generation to generation. 'Culturomics' studies the evolution of human culture quantitatively, in this instance by using books as a 'fossil record' of previous generations. Here we visually represent the words that appear in contemporary English books; the size of each word is its frequency in published books. The most common words, such as 'the' and 'a', are omitted.
[Image generated using wordle.org]

Imagine how much you could learn from reading every book that was ever published. It would, of course, be impossible for any human being to do. But, a group of researchers is trying to accomplish it with computers. Jean-Baptiste Michel and colleagues have already scanned 5,195,769 books—approximately four percent of all the words ever printed—into computers. Now, sophisticated programs are analyzing those books and studying their text to paint a clear picture of how our world has been changing over the past few centuries.

These researchers call their experiment "culturomics," and they say that their study can be used to track things such as the evolution of grammar, the use of technology in society, peoples' pursuit of fame, and the effects of censorship on people or groups—just to name a few.



Books are an important part of our cultural genome, the information that we pass on from generation to generation. 'Culturomics' studies the evolution of human culture quantitatively, in this instance by using books as a 'fossil record' of previous generations. Here we visually represent the words that appear in contemporary English books; the size of each word is its frequency in published books.
[Image generated using wordle.org

Michel and his colleagues decided to focus on how the English language was used between the years 1800 and 2000. They highlight how cultural changes (like war and slavery) have been linked to linguistic changes, or changes in the way we refer to those cultural changes.

The researchers analyzed more English words than any dictionary contains, identifying some words that have vanished from our vocabularies over time—and other words that have slowly become popular. They also tracked peoples' fame by counting how many times a person's name was printed.

Eventually, Michel and his colleagues suggest that these kinds of "culturomic" studies could reveal hidden trends in disease, civil war, diet, science and religion—again, just to name a few.

This research appears in the 16 December issue of Science Express.

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