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Researchers Map Migration of Culture Over Time

First Posted: Aug 01, 2014 03:33 AM EDT
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Researchers Map Migration of Culture Over Time

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An international team of researchers has combined three huge databases used to record the births and deaths of notable people and mapped the geographic migration of culture through history.

The study, published in the journal Science, presents a unique approach for tracking the evolution of human culture -- most notably, instead of the traditional method of digging deep into the specifics of a distinguished individual's life or particular time period, the researchers marked the distinct beginnings and ends of thousands of notable lives, without regard for who the individuals were or in what field of they had distinguished themselves.

The statistics had been included in Freebase, a crowd-sourced database of individuals, and two databases of artists.

The scientific team anticipated mapping and analyzing the data left by artists, politicians, scientists and other prominent people would point to cultural and intellectual focal points along the time line of cultural development and also offer provide quantitative evidence supporting historical interpretations but also pose new questions.

"Death is certainly not random, in the sense that people tend to die where they migrate to perform their art," Albert-László Barabási, a physicist and professor of network science at Northeastern University who was involved in the work, said in a story published by the Boston Globe. "Looking at one person would not be relevant, because there are so many factors that affect the decision of where one person works and where he or she will die. With hundreds of individuals, they together map out where are the places where they can perform their art the best."

Maximilian Schich, associate professor of arts and technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, began the work when he was a post-doctoral researcher in Boston, where there are several places were notable people tended to gather, such Jamaica Plain, Brookline and Newton, where there were more notable deaths than births, and other locales such as Allston, Malden, East Boston and Dorchester, where more notable people were born than died.

"On the local level, you can see this intuitive reflection of the relative attractiveness of places," Schich said.

The work had somewhat unconventional beginnings. For years, Schich worked as an art historian in a Northeastern laboratory that was best known for its work in a totally different area, discerning human migration patterns by analyzing cellphone data. What interested the physicists who were trying to understand human migration about his project was the idea that they could look to see what those migration patterns looked like over a lifetime and over centuries. What drew Schich to hang out with a bunch of physicists was a desire to bring the statistical tools of the quantitative sciences to a field in which scholars usually read hundreds of books and specialized in distinct time periods.

Schich and his colleagues found that, despite the discovery of America and the invention of different, better modes of travel, human migration patterns did not change dramatically overe the long span of time.

Specifically, over eight centuries, they noted, the average distance between a person's places of birth and death increased, but didn't even double, going from an average distance of 133 miles from cradle to grave in the 1300s up to 237 miles in the 21st century.

They also found patterns that suggested the ebb and flow of cultural centers.

For instance, while Paris and New York have been death attractors for a long time, during a period in the 1920s and '30s, New York saw more births than deaths of notable people.

"Collectively, putting these pieces of data together, we get a big picture of all the history of humanity as we know it today," Barabási said.

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