Ngram is a Google analytic tool/way to waste lots of time on the internet, a byproduct of Google’s scanning millions of books into its database. In a matter of seconds, Ngram scans words from about 7.5 million books, an estimated 6 percent of all books ever published. Type a word or phrase in the Ngram Viewer search box and in seconds a chart of its yearly frequency will appear. You can also search for a series of words or phrases and the Viewer will provide a color-coded chart comparing frequency of use. More sophisticated searches (e.g., making the search case sensitive, or not) are also possible.
As explained in the New York Times, researchers “have used this system to analyze centuries of word use, examining the spread of scientific concepts, technological innovations, political repression, and even celebrity fame.” Erez Aiden, a computer scientist who helped create the word frequency tool, says he and his co-researcher, Jean-Baptiste Michel, wanted “to create a scientific measuring instrument, something like a telescope, but instead of pointing it at a star, you point it at human culture.” In fact, the title of their new book is Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture. Still, they caution that, like other scientific tools, Ngram’s results can be misinterpreted. An example: the fax machine. If you query that term, it looks as if the fax appears almost instantaneously in the 1980s. In reality, the machine was invented in the 1840s but was then called the “telefax.”
If Ngram can search for scientific concepts, how about unscientific concepts? What might a search of unscientific concepts tell us about our human culture? Let’s find out. (more…)