Carnegie Mellon researchers call the project Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (SDFB). But what it is is an great big data mining project that tries to trace the influence and ideas of Bacon, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton and more than 6,000 others from the 16th-17th centuries to let scholars and students reassemble and discuss or debate the era's networked culture.
The project, the researchers say, pulls together centuries of books, articles, documents and manuscripts that have been scattered and divided in order to understand the role of linked connections in spreading ideas and knowledge.
"Francis Bacon may not have 'liked' or commented on a Facebook post by Shakespeare, but reassembling the early modern social network gets us a long way toward understanding what he or anyone else could have known, jokes and references they would have understood, sensitive information they might have encountered," said Christopher Warren, assistant professor of English in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences in a statement. One of the great historical arguments has been around whether or not Bacon in particular or someone else write some of Shakespeare's plays?
Warren notes that dense accounts exist of small groups and communities, giving us partial views of the early modern network, but this is the first attempt to bring it together in one place, in a visual way.
"Six Degrees of Francis Bacon is many things, but above all it's a tool for asking questions. It allows people to click on this historical network to see who's connected, recreating this whole world and then raising even more questions about how an idea, say, religious toleration, or the circulation of blood, got from person A to person B, why it took this route and not that route, and so on," Warren stated.
The project, which has support from a Google Faculty Research Award, uses data mining to develop the visual social network. Crawling through sources to create an initial list of 6,000 people from the period, the project already has investigated more than 19 million potential connections. To get the project to its current point of visualizing this 6,000-person world, the CMU team worked with Georgetown University's Daniel Shore, a Milton expert whose current research focuses on tracing syntax, and they are developing a partnership with London- and Cambridge-based scholars Ruth and Sebastian Ahnert, who study the shape of 16th-century letter-writing networks.
From the SDFB web site: "Our current goal is to improve the project and increase our impact on the scholarship of the early modern period in three ways. First, we aim to expand the range of the texts from which we can infer associations. The entries of the ODNB include limited and partial information, but a fuller range of sources - biographies and scholarly work from the nineteenth century to the present - will allow us to extend these limits, correct these partialities, and thereby increase the accuracy of the reconstructed network. Second, we intend to develop and refine our statistical methods to incorporate different types of documents and entities, as well as develop a computational framework for handling the increased scale of the project. Finally, we will build and improve the interactive front end interface to make it intuitive, attractive, and flexible enough to meet the needs of scholars, teachers, and students of the early modern period."
Unlike published prose, SDFB is extensible, collaborative, and interoperable: extensible in that actors and associations can always be added, modified, developed, or, removed; collaborative in that it synthesizes the work of many scholars; interoperable in that new work on the network is put into immediate relation to previously mapped relationships, the researchers stated.
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