So the bigram "John Lennon" (25 million hits) is apparently more talked about than "Elvis Presley" (20 million hits). But both get beaten by "Paris Hilton" (32 million hits), who in turn is dwarfed by "Michael Jackson" (98 million). And of course, "Lady Gaga" (140 mln) is the biggest.
That's pretty clear, right?
Not really. In fact, this statistics is fundamentally flawed. The Internet is growing at a rapid rate, and this growth is not compensated for in Google hit statistics. This issue is easy to spot when comparing the Google statistics for the bigrams "Barack Obama" (71 mln hits) and "Bill Clinton" (11 mln hits). The dominant effect in creating this huge difference is simply the internet now being much bigger than during the presidency of Clinton.
So Google search is not suitable for tracking trends and measuring impact. And not unrelated to its growth rate is the fact that the internet is simply too young to provide the required statistics.
Now Google has come up with a new tool that fixes all of this. It's based on Google's huge database of digitized books, and goes under the name Google Books Ngram Viewer. The tool searches in a giant database of currently half a trillion words in more then five million books published since 1500. It generates occurrence statistics for n-grams linked to the year of publication, and normalizes the result against the number of n-grams published that year. The end result is a frequency of occurrence, the percentage of n-grams published in a given year that are identical to the one you entered.
The Ngram viewer was made available to the public two days ago, and despite the low-profile introduction, the tool is definitely making waves (see here, here and here). The tool discloses a vast and rich area of research for scholars, but provides fun to teenagers as well. I have played with it, and have to confess it yields intriguing results and is kind of addictive.
Of course I simply had to check who is the biggest scientist. Who do you think would classify for that title? Of course we are going to base our nomination on the historic occurrence statistics captured in the Google Ngram Viewer. The Guardian claims that Freud appears way more often than Darwin or Einstein. That is correct, but guess what: we have a king of science, it is a physicist and his impact continues over two-and-a-half centuries:
Yes, it's Sir Isaac. At the top of his fame four out of every million bigrams written was the bigram "Isaac Newton". That's awesome. Einstein, whose real fame seems not to have started before 1930 has also grown into an icon of science, but never even reached a hit rate of one in a million. And Freud? He reached his maximum influence in the 1990's, but stayed below the two-in-a-million level. And his popularity rapidly declined thereafter.
Isaac Newton is a worthy 'King of Science'. Not only did his influence, measured in occurrences of his name, reach unprecedented levels, also his influence sustained over several centuries. And, by awarding the title 'King of Science' to Newton, we have a king that can compete with his colleague 'King of Pop' also in terms of weirdness. But how does Sir Isaac fare in terms of written hits when pitted against Wacko Jacko? Remember, Michael Jackson has close to a hundred-million occurrences on the internet, that is more than the combined score of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Bill Clinton and Paris Hilton. Does poor Isaac stand any chance?
Well, when it comes to looking back into history, we are strongly myopic.
We continue to underestimate the impact of historic figures and overestimate that of people whose actions we have witnessed. Judge for yourself who had a bigger historic impact:
Looking for Isaac's true peers, we have to forget today's hypes and current celebrities, and turn our attention to those who changed history. Our King of Science in comparison to two other highly influential European historical figures:
* Don't forget the double quotes to make the search string-specific!
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