Tag Archives: humanities

Evolution of literature as seen by a classicist, a biologist and a computer scientist

Studying intertextuality shows how books are related in various ways and are reorganized and recombined over time. Image courtesy of Elena Poiata.

I find the image more instructive when I read it from the bottom up. For those who prefer to prefer to read from the top down, there’s this April 5, 2017 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurekAlert),

A classicist, biologist and computer scientist all walk into a room — what comes next isn’t the punchline but a new method to analyze relationships among ancient Latin and Greek texts, developed in part by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin.

Their work, referred to as quantitative criticism, is highlighted in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper identifies subtle literary patterns in order to map relationships between texts and more broadly to trace the cultural evolution of literature.

“As scholars of the humanities well know, literature is a system within which texts bear a multitude of relationships to one another. Understanding what is distinctive about one text entails knowing how it fits within that system,” said Pramit Chaudhuri, associate professor in the Department of Classics at UT Austin. “Our work seeks to harness the power of quantification and computation to describe those relationships at macro and micro levels not easily achieved by conventional reading alone.”

In the study, the researchers create literary profiles based on stylometric features, such as word usage, punctuation and sentence structure, and use techniques from machine learning to understand these complex datasets. Taking a computational approach enables the discovery of small but important characteristics that distinguish one work from another — a process that could require years using manual counting methods.

“One aspect of the technical novelty of our work lies in the unusual types of literary features studied,” Chaudhuri said. “Much computational text analysis focuses on words, but there are many other important hallmarks of style, such as sound, rhythm and syntax.”

Another component of their work builds on Matthew Jockers’ literary “macroanalysis,” which uses machine learning to identify stylistic signatures of particular genres within a large body of English literature. Implementing related approaches, Chaudhuri and his colleagues have begun to trace the evolution of Latin prose style, providing new, quantitative evidence for the sweeping impact of writers such as Caesar and Livy on the subsequent development of Roman prose literature.

“There is a growing appreciation that culture evolves and that language can be studied as a cultural artifact, but there has been less research focused specifically on the cultural evolution of literature,” said the study’s lead author Joseph Dexter, a Ph.D. candidate in systems biology at Harvard University. “Working in the area of classics offers two advantages: the literary tradition is a long and influential one well served by digital resources, and classical scholarship maintains a strong interest in close linguistic study of literature.”

Unusually for a publication in a science journal, the paper contains several examples of the types of more speculative literary reading enabled by the quantitative methods introduced. The authors discuss the poetic use of rhyming sounds for emphasis and of particular vocabulary to evoke mood, among other literary features.

“Computation has long been employed for attribution and dating of literary works, problems that are unambiguous in scope and invite binary or numerical answers,” Dexter said. “The recent explosion of interest in the digital humanities, however, has led to the key insight that similar computational methods can be repurposed to address questions of literary significance and style, which are often more ambiguous and open ended. For our group, this humanist work of criticism is just as important as quantitative methods and data.”

The paper is the work of the Quantitative Criticism Lab (www.qcrit.org), co-directed by Chaudhuri and Dexter in collaboration with researchers from several other institutions. It is funded in part by a 2016 National Endowment for the Humanities grant and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, awarded in 2016 to Chaudhuri to further his education in statistics and biology. Chaudhuri was one of 12 scholars selected for the award, which provides humanities researchers the opportunity to train outside of their own area of special interest with a larger goal of bridging the humanities and social sciences.

Here’s another link to the paper along with a citation,

Quantitative criticism of literary relationships by Joseph P. Dexter, Theodore Katz, Nilesh Tripuraneni, Tathagata Dasgupta, Ajay Kannan, James A. Brofos, Jorge A. Bonilla Lopez, Lea A. Schroeder, Adriana Casarez, Maxim Rabinovich, Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, and Pramit Chaudhuri. PNAS Published online before print April 3, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1611910114

This paper appears to be open access.

Canadian ‘studies of science’ news: career opportunity for postdoc (2nd call), summer school in India, and a Situating Science update

The deadline for a posdoctoral fellowship with Atlantic Canada’s Cosmoplitanism group (which morphed out of the Situating Science group) is coming up shortly (March 2, 2015). I wrote about this opportunity in a Dec. 12, 2014 post part of which I will reproduce here,

Postdoctoral Fellowship

Science and Technology Studies (STS) / History and Philosophy of Science, Technology, Medicine (HPSTM)

University of King’s College / Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS
Duration: 1 year, with option to renew for second year pending budget and project restrictions and requirements
Application Deadline: Monday March 2 2015

The University of King’s College and Dalhousie University announce a postdoctoral fellowship award in Science and Technology Studies (STS)/ History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine (HPSTM), associated with the SSHRC [Canada Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council] Partnership Development Grant, “Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature: Creating an East/West Partnership,” a partnership development between institutions in Canada, India and Southeast Asia aimed at establishing an East/West research network on “Cosmopolitanism” in science. The project closely examines the ideas, processes and negotiations that inform the development of science and scientific cultures within an increasingly globalized landscape. A detailed description of the project can be found at: www.CosmoLocal.org.

Funding and Duration:
The position provides a base salary equivalent to $35,220 plus benefits (EI, CPP, Medical and Dental), and with the possibility of augmenting the salary through teaching or other awards, depending on the host department. The fellow would be entitled to benefits offered by University of King’s College or Dalhousie University. The successful applicant will begin their 12-month appointment between April 1st and July 1st, 2015, subject to negotiation and candidate’s schedule. Contingent on budget and project requirements, the fellowship may be extended for a second year with an annual increase as per institutional standards.

The appointment will be housed at University of King’s College and/or in one of the departments of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Dalhousie University. The successful applicant is expected to have completed a Ph.D. in STS, HPS or a cognate field, within the last five years and before taking up the fellowship. Please note that the Postdoctoral Fellowship can only be held at Dalhousie University in the six years following completion of his or her PhD. For example a person who finished his or her PhD in 2010 is eligible to be a Postdoctoral Fellow until December 2016.

In addition to carrying out independent or collaborative research under the supervision of one or more of the Cosmopolitanism co-applicants, the successful candidate will be expected to take a leadership role in the Cosmopolitanism project, to actively coordinate the development of the project, and participate in its activities as well as support networking and outreach.International candidates need a work permit and SIN.

While the research topic is open and we encourage applications from a wide range of subfields, we particularly welcome candidates with expertise and interest in the topics addressed in the Cosmopolitanism project. The candidate will be expected to work under the supervision of one of the Cosmopolitanism co-applicants. Information on each is available on the “About” page of the project’s website (www.CosmoLocal.org).

Good luck! You can find more application information here.

Now for the summer school opportunity in India, (from a Feb. 18, 2015 Cosmopolitanism announcement).

Call for applications:
“Scientific Objects and Digital Cosmopolitanism” Summer School

Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities,
Manipal, India
July 20-24, 2015

Please spread the word in your communities.


Scientific Objects and Digital Cosmopolitanism

Co-organized by the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities and Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature.

July 20-24, 2015

Deadline for applications
Monday March 23, 2015

Sundar Sarukkai, Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities
Gordon McOuat, University of King’s College

Varun Bhatta, Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities

Applications from post-graduate and doctoral students in the fields of philosophy, philosophy of science and social sciences, history and philosophy of science, science and technology studies, and cognate fields are invited to a five-day summer school in India, made possible by collaborations between institutions and scholars in Canada, India and Southeast Asia. This will be an excellent opportunity for graduate students interested in receiving advanced training in the philosophy of science and science and technology studies, with a focus on scientific objects and their relation to cosmopolitanism.

The paradigm of scientific objects has undergone a major transformation in recent times. Today, scientific objects are not limited to microscopic or major astronomical objects. A new category of objects involves ontological modes of data, grids, simulation, visualization, etc. Such modes of objects are not merely peripheral props or outcomes of scientific endeavour. They actively constitute scientific theorizing, experimentation and instrumentation, and catalyze notions of cosmopolitanism in the digital world. Cosmopolitanism in this context is defined as a model of cultural and political engagement based on multidirectional exchange and contact across borders. A cosmopolitan approach treats science as a contingent, multifaceted and multicultural network of exchange. The summer school will engage with philosophical themes around the nature of new scientific objects and digital cosmopolitanism.

“The event is organized by the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities (Manipal University) and by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature, a three-year project to establish a research network on cosmopolitanism in science with partners in Canada, India, and Southeast Asia. The project closely examines the actual types of negotiations that go into the making of science and its culture within an increasingly globalized landscape.

Program and Faculty:
Each of the days will be split among:
(a) Background sessions led by Arun Bala, Gordon McOuat and Sundar Sarukkai,
(b) Sessions led by other faculty members with recognized expertise in the theme, and
(c) Sessions devoted to student research projects.

There will be plenty of opportunities for interaction and participation. The seminar will be held in English and readings will be circulated in advance. Special events will be organized to complement session content. There also will be opportunities for exploring the incredible richness and diversity of the region.

Selection Criteria:
We seek outstanding graduate students from Canada, India and Southeast Asia. We will prioritize applications from graduate students in disciplines or with experience in philosophy, philosophy of science, social studies, the history and philosophy of science, or science and technology studies.

Location and Accommodations:
The event will be hosted by the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities in the picturesque ocean-side state of Karnataka in south-western India. Students will be housed in student residences. The space is wheelchair accessible.

A registration fee of Rs 1500 for Indian students and $100 CAD for international students will be charged. This fee will include accommodations and some meals.

Financial Coverage:

Students from India:
Travel for India-based students will be covered by the summer school sponsors.

Students from Canada and Southeast Asia:
Pending government funding, travel costs may be defrayed for students from Canada or Southeast Asia. Students should indicate in their applications whether they have access to travel support (confirmed or unconfirmed) from home institutions or funding agencies. This will not affect the selection process. Acceptance letters will include more information on travel support.

Students from outside Canada, India and Southeast Asia:
Students from outside Canada, India and Southeast Asia will be expected to provide their own funding.

Students at home institutions of “Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature” team members are strongly encouraged to contact the local team member to discuss funding options. Information on the project’s partners and team members is available on the project’s “About Us” page: www.CosmoLocal.org/about-us.

Any travel support will be considered as co-sponsorship to this international training event and acknowledged accordingly. Further information on funding will be included with acceptance letters.

Deadline for applications: March 23, 2015
Notification of acceptance: Week of April 6, 2015
Deadline for registration forms: May 11, 2015

Applications should include the following, preferably sent as PDFs:
1. Description of research interests and their relevance to the school (max. 300 words)
2. Brief Curriculum Vitae / resume highlighting relevant skills, experience and training,
3. One signed letter of recommendation from a supervisor, director of graduate studies, or other faculty member familiar with applicant’s research interests.

Applications should be sent to:
MCPH Office, mcphoffice@gmail.com
with a copy to
Varun Bhatta, varunsbhatta@gmail.com

For more information, please contact :
Greta Regan
Project Manager
Cosmopolitanism and the Local
University of King’s College


Dr. Gordon McOuat, History of Science and Technology Programme,
University of King’s College

The last bit of information for this post concerns the Situating Science research cluster mentioned here many times. Situating Science was a seven-year project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) which has become the Canadian Consortium for Situating Science and Technology (CCSST) and has some sort of a relationship (some of the Situating Science organizers have moved over) to the Cosmopolitanism project. The consortium seems to be a somewhat diminished version of the cluster so you may want to check it out now while some of the information is still current.

Quantum entanglement and magnetism

A joint Indian/Austrian research team has uncovered the secrets behind why manganese oxides (manganites) have demonstrably different properties when size is reduced. From the Nov. 29, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Material properties such as electrical conductivity, magnetic properties or the melting point do not depend on an object’s size and shape. “In India, however, an experiment recently showed that special manganese oxides – so called manganites – exhibit completely different properties, when their size is reduced to tiny grains”, Karsten Held explains.

A team of scientists from the Vienna University of Technology (Austria) and the University of Calcutta (India) investigated this phenomenon – and the new effect could be explained in computer simulations. In a crossover from large crystals to smaller crystals, the distribution of the electrons changes, and so does their energy. This, in turn, changes the electrical and magnetic properties of the crystal. “The phenomenon of quantum entanglement plays a very important role here”, says Professor Karsten Held. “We cannot think of the electrons as classical particles, moving independently of each other, on well-separated paths. The electrons can only be described collectively.” By changing their size, the properties of the manganite-crystals can now be harnessed. Larger crystals are insulators, and they are not magnetic. Tiny crystal pieces on the other hand turn out to be metallic ferromagnets.

Here’s an image of a magnet and crystals,

A magnet and an illustration of manganite cystals (downloaded from the Vienna University of Technology wesite)

Here’s a link to the Nov. 29, 2011 news release from the Vienna University of Technology where you can find additional information in English and German and some pictures.

Poetry, molecular biophysics and innovation in Canada

There’s an interesting story by Karen Hopkin (Carpe Datum)  in the latest The Scientist newsletter about Gregory Petsko, a would-be student of epic poetry who changed his field of studies to molecular biophysics as he made his way to a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. From Carpe Datum,

With his heart set on the study of epic poetry, Petsko arranged to work with Maurice Bowra, a preeminent classicist, and set sail for England. “Back then, all the Rhodes scholars traveled over on the Queen Elizabeth, which took 8 days,” he says. “And sometime while I was out over the Atlantic, Maurice Bowra died.” Not sure how to proceed, Petsko phoned Princeton and spoke to the head of the lab where he’d worked part-time to earn a few bucks. “He told me to go over to David Phillips’s lab and get a degree in molecular biophysics,” says Petsko. “And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“For me, structure is just a means to an end. That end is function. I care about function,” he says. “I want to know how things work.”

“Greg never loses sight of the big picture. For him, it’s ultimately about the biology,” says former postdoc Ann Stock, an HHMI investigator at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “In the field of structural biology, that hasn’t always been true. In the early years, many structural biologists focused mostly on the nuts-and-bolts technical aspects of solving three-dimensional structures.” Petsko is proficient when it comes to nuts and bolts, she says, “but he sees them as tools that allow him to explore the biology of proteins.”

I find it interesting that Petsko is well grounded in the humanities as there is a longstanding argument that an education in the humanities and/or liberal arts is a “big picture” education. Petsko’s discoveries include the TIM barrel,

“It’s like an alpha helix or a beta-pleated sheet: the TIM barrel is a protein fold that basically implies function,” says [Jan] Westpheling [geneticist at University of Georgia]. “And Greg discovered it. This was a profound contribution in the days when people were just beginning to understand the three-dimensional structure of proteins.”

If you’re interested in more about how scientists think and work, please do read Hopkin’s story as I’m now switching gears to Rob Annan’s (Don’t leave Canada behind blog) latest post, Innovation isn’t just about science funding.

Rob raises a number of points about innovation in Canada, along with this one (from the post),

Expecting researchers to produce innovative research and to translate it into the broader world is unrealistic. And giving more money to researchers isn’t going to change that.

Much of the discussion about Canada’s lack of innovation is focused on how money can be made from research. Scientists are quite innovative in their research; the problem, from the government’s perspective, lies in bringing the research to market. Back to Rob,

… Unlike scientific research, social and commercial innovation isn’t a relatively linear process you can lay out in five year funding applications. It doesn’t require a highly-specialized skill set. It requires a broad skill set that involves creative thinking, communication skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cultural and civic understanding – all of which need to be applied to the varied stages of innovation development.

These are the attributes of successful entrepreneurs. These are also the attributes of a liberal arts and science education.

You might say that Petsko embodies “the attributes of a liberal arts and science education,” although as far as I know he’s not an entrepreneur.  Rob expands on the notion of “big picture” education,

Even a who’s-who of Canadian high-tech CEOs have made an explicit case for the importance of liberal arts and science graduates in their industries.

Yes, we need to fund scientific research to ensure that we have a deep pool of innovation from which to draw. But translating this research into world-leading social or commercial innovation won’t happen if we leave it strictly to the scientists. Individuals trained in the social sciences and humanities bring an essential skill set to the process, and we neglect funding these areas at our competitive peril.

Thank you, Rob. It’s always good when someone who’s a scientist makes these kinds of comments as someone with a liberal arts/social science/humanities background could be accused of being self-serving.

While the  Petsko story doesn’t perfectly illustrate Rob’s points, it does hint at the importance of broad-based thinking for breakthroughs and, ultimately, innovation. I’d add one item to Rob’s list of skills, risktaking.

I do have a few questions but I’m going to take those to Rob’s comments section.

Social science and nanotechnology (Canadian or otherwise)

They sure don’t make it easy to find but there is a way to search Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council awards for research. I ran a search for nanotechnology projects spanning the 2005-6 and 2006-7 fiscal years and found four projects. Two at the University of Alberta and two at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Hmmm….here are the titles (and researchers and universitites):

  • Giorgio Agamben’s political ontologies: a study of biopower, biopolitics, and nanotechnology. (Charles A Barbour at the U of A)
  • A field perspective on nanotechnology path creation: an examination of carbon nanotubes. (Michael Lounsbury at the U of A)
  • Opportunity creation from the confluence of technologies. (Eliicia Maine, SFU)
  • Bionanotechnology in British Columbia: conceptualizations of social implications. (Karen M Woods, SFU)

Those were all awarded in 2006. For fun, I went back to the 2001-2 fiscal year and found one other researcher (she got two grants for the same project) in 2003-4

  • Weaving new technologies: social theory and ubiquitous computing. (Anne Galloway, Carleton University, Ontario)

It doesn’t seem like a lot especially when I see some of the work being done in the UK and in the US.

On other fronts, I stumbled across an old (2004?) Neal Stephenson interview with Slashdot (I think the writer is Adam Shand). They make no mention of Diamond Age, which is more or less Stephenson’s nano novel. Still, he provides an interesting take on being a science fiction writer and making money as a writer. In fact, if you’re interested in Neal Stephenson interviews, etc., you can go here for a listing.