A fascinating article by Jean-Baptiste Michel (Harvard) and his colleagues was recently published this month in the journal Science. Michel collaborated with the Google Books team in order to analyze the content of millions of books that have been digitized. So far the project has been successful in converting over 15 million books into a digital format (~12% of all books ever published) and Michel analyzed a subset of about 5 million that were most complete. By using software to analyze this amazing corpus, these authors were able to make a number of fascinating observations about our culture and how it has changed over time. For one, our lexicon appears to have grown remarkably rapidly recently, with the size of language increasing by about 70% over the past 50 years. Their observations were not limited to language, however. The fame of individuals, as evidenced by mentions within books, also appears to have changed. Individuals of initial celebrity has been decreasing and the period for which people remain famous has also been shrinking. Overall, it appears that people are becoming more famous than before but this fame is also more fleeting than it has been in the past. Science was also found to be an unlikely route to fame, no doubt a depressing observation for the fame-seeking scientists among us. Lastly, and most appropriately for our site, although Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein are certainly well known, it is the psychologist Sigmund Freud who has a real grip on our psyche.
The article itself is easy to read and full of amusing wordplay. You can read the full article here, and I would encourage you all to do so in order to examine how they came to these fascinating conclusions.
Special thanks to Dr. Nathan Spreng (Harvard) for bringing this article to my attention.