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Groundbreaking research maps cultural history

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.