Groundbreaking research maps cultural history

by Northeastern News

New research from North­eastern Uni­ver­sity has mapped the intel­lec­tual migra­tion net­work in North America and Europe over a 2,000-year span. The team of net­work sci­en­tists used the birth and death loca­tions of more than 150,000 intel­lec­tuals to map their mobility pat­terns in order to iden­tify the major cul­tural cen­ters on the two con­ti­nents over two millennia.

In the new paper, pub­lished Friday in the journal Sci­ence, the researchers found that var­ious cities have emerged at var­ious times in his­tory as cul­tural hubs as more intel­lec­tuals died in those cities than elsewhere—regardless of where they were born. For example, Rome was a major cul­tural hub until the late 18th cen­tury, at which point Paris took over the reins. Addi­tion­ally, the find­ings reveal that the dis­tance between the birth and death loca­tions of notable indi­vid­uals has not increased much over the span of eight centuries—a remark­able show­case of human mobility patterns—despite the fact that col­o­niza­tion and trans­porta­tion improve­ments have increased long-​​distance travel.

“By tracking the migra­tion of notable indi­vid­uals for over two mil­lennia, we could for the first time explore the boom and bust of the cul­tural cen­ters of the world,” said Albert-​​László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Pro­fessor of Net­work Sci­ence and director of Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. “The observed rapid changes offer a fas­ci­nating view of the tran­sience of intel­lec­tual supremacy.”

Above, a visu­al­iza­tion of North Amer­ican his­toric mobility, from 1620 to 2012 CE.

In their paper, Max­i­m­ilian Schich, the lead author and former vis­iting research sci­en­tist in the center, Barabási, and their co-​​authors pre­sented a variety of new find­ings. For example, despite the arts’ depen­dence on money, the cul­tural hubs that attracted the most intel­lec­tuals were not nec­es­sarily eco­nomic hubs.

In addi­tion, they found that by the 16th cen­tury, Europe appeared to be char­ac­ter­ized by two rad­i­cally dif­ferent cul­tural regimes: a “winner-​​takes-​​all” regime with coun­tries where an indi­vidual city attracts a sub­stan­tial and con­stant flow of intel­lec­tuals (i.e.: Paris, France) and a “fit-​​gets-​​richer” regime with cities within a fed­eral region (i.e.: Ger­many) com­peting with each other for their share of intel­lec­tuals, only being able to attract a frac­tion of that pop­u­la­tion in any given century.

The team also found that there is no such thing as an average cul­tural center or average attrac­tive­ness con­sis­tent among loca­tions. In fact, they scale and fluc­tuate heavily over time due to a variety of factors.

For example, while intel­lec­tuals have always flocked to New York City in great num­bers, it was an even bigger source of talent in the 1920s, being the birth­place of a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of indi­vid­uals in the data set.

Addi­tion­ally, loca­tions like Hol­ly­wood, the Alps, and the French Riv­iera, which have not pro­duced a large number of notable fig­ures, have become, at dif­ferent points in his­tory, major des­ti­na­tions for intel­lec­tuals, per­haps ini­tially emerging for rea­sons such as the location’s beauty or climate.

Above, a visu­al­iza­tion of Euro­pean his­toric mobility, from 0 to 2012 CE.

The research has not only uncov­ered fas­ci­nating aspects of intel­lec­tual migra­tion over two mil­lennia, it also broke new ground in terms of its data-​​driven approach to under­standing cul­tural his­tory. The team used data going back sev­eral cen­turies to quan­tify qual­i­ta­tive knowl­edge and con­sulted vast amounts of literature.

They relied on large data sets, including the curated Gen­eral Artist Lex­icon that con­sists exclu­sively of artists and includes more than 150,000 names and Free­base with roughly 120,000 indi­vid­uals, 2,200 of whom are artists. Through this novel approach, they iden­ti­fied a clear set of geo­graph­ical pat­terns that would not be rec­og­nized using tra­di­tional quan­ti­ta­tive his­tor­ical methods. The third data set, the Getty Union List of Artist Names, was used to val­i­date the results of the other two.

“We’re starting out to do some­thing which is called cul­tural sci­ence where we’re in a very sim­ilar tra­jec­tory as sys­tems biology for example,” said Schich, now an asso­ciate pro­fessor in arts and tech­nology at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Dallas. “As data sets about birth and death loca­tions grow, the approach will be able to reveal an even more com­plete pic­ture of his­tory. In the next five to 10 years, we’ll have con­sid­er­ably larger amounts of data and then we can do more and better, address more questions.”

In addi­tion to Schich and Barabási, the research team includes Dirk Hel­bing, chair of Soci­ology, Mod­eling, and Sim­u­la­tion at ETH Zurich in Switzer­land; Chaoming Song; Yong-​​Yeol Ahn; Mauro Mar­tino; and Alexander Mirsky—several of whom worked on this project while still at Northeastern.

Originally published in [email protected] on August 1, 2014.

College of Science