Using Scanned Books to Track Ideas and Culture

Google Books NGram Viewer is a cool new online system. Enter in a word or phrase, and you can see how its usage has changed over the past few centuries, based on how often it was used in books. (An “n-gram” is a sequence of words. So, a 1-gram is a single word like “banana,” while a 2-gram is a two-word phrase, like “stock market,” and a 5-gram is a phrase like “the United States of America.”)

What happens if you put science and religion into the viewer? TIME tried it first and found that science started to overtake religion around 1930. (Click on image for larger view.)

It’s a cool tool on its own, but it can also be used for a new type of science called “culturomics,” say a team of researchers (including Steven Pinker and Martin Nowak). They believe we can use digitized books to quantitatively analyze cultural trends, by tracking the frequency with which words appear in the English language. As they explain in a new paper, there are:

two central factors that contribute to culturomic trends. Cultural change guides the concepts we discuss (such as “slavery”). Linguistic change—which, of course, has cultural roots—affects the words we use for those concepts (“the Great War” vs. “World War I”). In this paper, we will examine both linguistic changes, such as changes in the lexicon and grammar; and cultural phenomena, such as how we remember people and events.

To track the frequency of certain words and phrases in the English language between 1800 and 2000, the researchers used a database of about 5.2 million books scanned by Google, containing more than 500 billion words. Here’s some of what they found:

• “We are forgetting our past faster with each passing year.”

• “The cultural adoption of technology has become more rapid.”

• “Science is a poor route to fame. Physicists and biologists eventually reached a similar level of fame as actors …, but it took them far longer. Alas, even at their peak, mathematicians tend not to be appreciated by the public.”

• “‘Galileo,’ ‘Darwin,’ and ‘Einstein’ may be well-known scientists, but ‘Freud’ is more deeply ingrained in our collective subconscious.”

• “Interest in ‘evolution’ was waning when ‘DNA’ came along.”

• “‘God’ is not dead; but needs a new publicist.”

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One Response

  1. The cultural trend when we look at science and religion does not mean they’re opposed, because the religious person is also interested in scientific literature. Besides, with new technological developments scientific literature naturally advances in its dissemination. However, I’ve made the seach in NGram Viewer for “atheism,religion” and the outcome is also interesting. Namely, atheism has never been a cultural trend. Moreover, if you search for “atheism,science” there is no correlation, actually, atheism seems to slightly decrease as cultural trend, and one should also conclude not take science for atheism.

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