Computer Science background, here to help again.

Who would’ve thought?

This one flow chart defined much of my existence from 2008 until 2011.

Make no mistake, I am completely aware that I am a strange man. I started coding in Java for the first time in years last week and couldn’t help but smile the entire time, even when my program failed miserably. I suppose that sort of interest in computer science is what made me so interested in Google’s Ngram Viewer. I am no stranger to analyzing large sets of data and find the commonalities and other properties of the data set, but the idea of analyzing millions and millions of books makes my loins all warm and tingly.

The article in Science that tells about some of the amazing things like mapping the English language and finding out how when we will most talk about a single year was really eye opening. I found myself already knee deep in some of the fun things to do with Ngram, but the article made me realize that I had only seen the tip of the iceberg that was the full potential of this engine.

The Mining The Dispatch site was really fun explore as well. The author of the site has found some really interesting conclusions and trends that I could connect with after just completing my American History course last term. I find the true “lesson”, if there is one, from the website is that our field is changing so dramatically. The idea of looking at the long term trends of hundreds, thousands, or millions of anything let alone books, newspapers or – potentially a new medium of study – video games, was unheard of a decade ago. It is fascinating, exciting and nerve wracking all at the same time realizing that we have yet to discover the full technological potential of our field, but I digress.

The peak of New York’s influence in literature is in the same year Sinatra sings “New York, New York” for the first time. Coincidence, I think not.

As I mentioned above, I have only begun to discover the potential of this engine but I found a couple of cool things that I thought were worth mentioning. Considering that the default timeframe to look between was 1800 to 2010, I thought looking at the rise and fall of the greatest cities in the world would be a great start. I mapped the terms, “Paris”, “London”, and “New York” (I had put in more cities but their results didn’t reveal as much as these 3 did). What I found was great. Paris and London each had a large stake in literature throughout this period but New York became this rising star that overtook Paris in about 1865. Paris retook second place to London in 1868 before New York surpassed it permanently in 1882. London was able to maintain its top-dog status until about 1911 and New York never looked back. I tried a number of other cities as well but as far as I can tell, New York is the most influential literary city in the world. Note that this only applies to English literature and for the select number of books that Ngram draws from.

Another term list I decided to look at was Aristotle vs. Plato, just cause it’s always fun to pit two philosophers against each other. I searched only those two and I included books from what I believe is the oldest date of books they have scanned which is 1500. To be frank, it was awesome.

Seriously, am I the only one that thinks this is amazing?

I have no idea where to start. First, it seems obvious that for a significant chunk or time, probably until the late 1500s, the amount of data that Google has compiled is simply too limited to analyze but as we go further along in time we see just how much these two philosophers fluctuate back and forth, jockeying for position in the race for prominence in literature. Also, I haven’t taken a class on Early Modern Europe in a long time but what made the 1650s such a haven for Platonic and Aristotelian literature? Why did Plato dominate over Aristotle in the 1660s? There are so many questions that arise from this information that I simply don’t have the answer to. For fear of going on to long I don’t think I’ll go too much deeper into that topic but seriously, I just plugged in some terms that popped into my head, imagine what some focused research could surface.

The Ngram Viewer (as well as its connection to Google Books) and other tools like it are going to revolutionize the way that historians conduct research and present findings. My toying around with the tool revealed so much in such a short amount of time. It will be very cool to see what findings will be drawn from this tool in the next 10 to 20 years.