According to legend, Isaac Newton emerged as a colossus in modern physics in 1666 after a legendary bonk to the head by a falling apple triggered his Universal Law of Gravitation. John Milton penned his epic poem “Paradise Lost” less than a year later. Though they occupied radically different intellectual spheres, is it possible the renowned physicist and poet were … friends?
Well, sort of. The newly released Six Degrees of Francis Bacon website — built in a partnership with Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University — posits that the two were linked by a mutual acquaintance, theologian Henry Oldenberg. This relationship is among the 88 million relationships presented through the project, which provides an ever-expanding, interactive social network of 13,000 of early modern England’s leading historical figures.
“The study of social networks is partially a reflection of our increasing awareness of how every aspect of culture is based on the way that we are connected to other people,” project co-founder and Georgetown English professor Daniel Shore said.
The title of the website plays on the name of the popular parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” which challenges movie buffs to find the shortest path of connections between actor Kevin Bacon and any individual involved in Hollywood. The broader six degrees of separation theory — that any two people on earth are connected by fewer than six friends or acquaintances — was originally proposed in 1929 by Frigyes Karinthy.
Spearheaded by Shore and Carnegie Mellon University English professor Chris Warren, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon aims to reconstruct the connections between key English figures from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The site includes William Shakespeare, King James I, Anne Boleyn and Oliver Cromwell, so that scholars and students can trace the formation of key intellectual English developments.
“Who we are and what we believe and the things that we do are largely functions of the way we are connected to others,” Shore said. “We no longer think of, for example, [of] Shakespeare as a lone genius who produced plays on his own, but we now understand that he was connected to others in all kinds of complicated ways that allowed him to write the plays that he did.”
The project illustrates the connections between people through up to two degrees of separation based on relationships with family, friends, lovers, employers and enemies, among other relationships. The color of a person’s icon on the website signals how many people he knew. On the left side of the screen, information about the individual’s birth and death dates, contributions to society and organizational affiliations are listed.Shore and Warren have overseen the development of the project since 2011 with a team of around a dozen statisticians and undergraduate students at Carnegie Mellon who data-mined information from 450,000 entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Since the website’s launch in beta in mid-September, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon nets 50 to 100 unique users every day who are invited to contribute to the website by adding or correcting connections in the network.
Already, 200 people have created accounts through the website and contributed to its crowd-sourcing of information. Shore said the existing information from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography provides the basis of the project which scholars and students can refine through collaborative usage of the website.
“We knew that scholars weren’t going to contribute to a blank page,” Shore said. “It’s too daunting to start from scratch in building up a network of an entire country for 200 years, so what we realized is that there is existing data on the way people are related that we could data-mine and create a preliminary network that scholars could then curate and add to. It’s sort of like the way people are more likely to dance when others are already dancing.”
Shore said the network-based structure of the project is indicative of an evolution over the past 50 years in the way historians, humanists and literary scholars approach the study of knowledge.
Carnegie Mellon postdoctoral fellow Jessica Otis, who worked on Six Degrees of Francis Bacon since 2012, said one of the goals of the project is to expand its usability.
“One of the main things we would love to do is make our project compatible with the linked-open data world — so basically computer standards that you can put in place that let anyone come in and grab all your data, and immediately incorporate it into other websites,” Otis said. “What we’re trying to do is remove barriers for using our information in their own website by allowing sites to talk to each other. This allows you to move across multiple websites and create a more focused data set.”
Carnegie Mellon master’s student Alyson Goldsmith, who is specializing in literary and cultural studies, initially heard about the project while working as a research assistant for its co-founder Chris Warren. Though she commends Six Degrees for the variety of ways it encourages users to contribute and visualize data, she said there is still room for improvement in some of the site’s features.
“One difficulty is user-friendliness,” Goldsmith said. “Researching using the Six Degrees platform is very intuitive, but it took me a few hours to feel confident as a contributor of new people and relationships. Researchers working on the project are studying even more data than is currently being represented on the site, and hopefully there will be a way to integrate this research soon for public use.”
Despite the site’s limitations, Shore said the earlier version of the tool was warmly received when he introduced it to his students during a digital humanities master’s class last spring.
“I think it’s a great teaching tool both as a way of introducing students to complex questions of the way people worked back then, but also it’s a great teaching tool in that undergraduates can contribute to it just on the basis of finding a particular figure in early modern history and investing in and learning about them,” Shore said. “They’re in a position very quickly where they can make a contribution to knowledge that becomes shared and contributes to the wider understanding of the topic.”