Two thousand years of intellectual freedom mapped

Credit: Image courtesy of Northeastern University


New research from Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research 
presents a pioneering approach to understanding European and North 
American cultural historyby mapping out the mobility patterns of notable 
intellectuals over a 2,000-year span. Above is a visualization of that work,
 specific to mobility patterns in North America.
I find this fascinating.  The graphic looks like one of those maps that airlines publish to show their flights, which in truth, this is.  Only it's not airline flights, it the flights of intellectuals over the past 2,000 years in their search for intellectual freedom and support.  

If you're writing historical fiction or non-fiction, you can use this research to understand what cities and cultures over the past two millennia were the most accepting and offered the most freedom to thinkers.  This is not who ruled the world, but who allowed people to explore and think and create.  Interesting stuff.


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.

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."

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.

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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.

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."

To watch videos demonstrating intellectual mobility over the last 2,000 years, click below


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Story Source: Materials provided by Northeastern University. M. Schich, C. Song, Y.-Y. Ahn, A. Mirsky, M. Martino, A.-L. Barabasi, D. Helbing. A network framework of cultural history. Science, 2014

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