Carnegie Mellon University
July 30, 2013

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

What if Sir Francis Bacon had been able to "friend" William Shakespeare on Facebook? The famous scientist and researcher's interactions with the playwright would have created a digital imprint for all to see, giving their other networked friends and peers insights into their relationship.

It also may have left behind evidence of one of the largest questions in all of English literature: Did Bacon or someone else write some of Shakespeare's plays?

To precisely trace the influence and ideas of Bacon, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton and more than 6,000 others from the early modern period — 16th-17th centuries — researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have created the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project. The living project will allow scholars and students from around the world to reassemble the era's networked culture. It 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.

"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," said Christopher Warren, assistant professor of English in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "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 added, "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."

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.