A joint venture between the engineers at Google Labs and researchers at Harvard University has resulted in a truly amazing new tool.

Google N-gram is a tool that enables you to search for words or phrases in over 5 million books published between 1800-2005 (around 4% of all books). The results are displayed in a frequency graph which enables anybody to quickly see how important the word, name of phrase has been throughout history.

Some of the experiments already conducted include an analyse of fame over time. Researchers used Wikipedia to create a shortlist of the 50 most famous people born in every year. Then, after searching through the library found that:

‘the most famous people alive today are more famous – in books – than their predecessors. Yet this fame is increasingly short-lived’

Perhaps unsurprisingly they also found out that actors become famous quicker than writers, but writers reach greater heights later in their life. Scientists can reach the same level of fame as actors but take much longer to do so.

This method of studying culture has taken the name ‘Culturomics’, a term that describes the quantitative study of culture. Studies of culture have predominantly used more qualitative methods, such as close reading a very small sample of books, to draw conclusions and theories.

Some of the other discoveries reported in Science Mag are that women are gaining ground on men, interest in evolution began to wane with the rise of DNA and (my favourite) although “Galileo”, “Darwin”, and “Einstein” may be well-known scientists, “Freud” is more deeply engrained in our collective subconscious.

The limitations of this research are that we are only searching books. But I imagine that it won’t be long until we are able to search periodicals, newspapers and other manuscripts.