Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

Imagine if Sir Francis Bacon had been able to "friend" William Shakespeare on Facebook.

The famous scientist's interactions with the playwright would have created a digital imprint, giving other networked friends and peers insight 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 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 evolving project will allow scholars and students to reassemble that era's networked culture. It pulls together centuries of books, articles, documents and manuscripts 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.

Warren said the project is a tool for seeing historical networks in new ways and for asking questions.

"It allows people to raise new questions about how an idea — say religious toleration or the circulation of blood — moved from person A to person B, why it took this route and not that route, and so on," Warren said.

The project, which has support from a Google Faculty Research Award, uses data mining to develop the visual social network and already has investigated more than 19 million potential connections.

Cosma Shalizi, associate professor of statistics, Mike Finegold, visiting assistant professor of statistics, and Ph.D. student Lawrence Wang are developing algorithms to predict potential social networks. They've also built a database to allow scholars to help refine the algorithms.

Warren will use a Wimmer Fellowship to further the project with student input next fall.

"Digital Literary and Cultural Studies: Six Degrees of Francis Bacon" will allow students interested in cultural studies, history, philosophy, design, network analysis and computer science to collaboratively solve problems tied to the early modern period's social network.

"Students who use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram understand social networks, but this is a kind of problem that needs to be addressed historically precisely because it's so ubiquitous," Warren said.

"For example, what counts as evidence of a relationship," Warren asked. "People lie, and encounters that are important to one person are not necessarily important to the other. We need to dig into culture and motivations to understand what's going on."

Related Links: Read press release | Dietrich College | Dept of English | Dept of Statistics

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