Poetry in motion

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    A quantitative approach to the humanities enriches research.

    The Oscar-winning 1989 film Dead Poets Society is an unabashedly exuberant story that appeals to the Lord Byron in each of us. Robin Williams plays a charismatic English teacher at a conservative US prep school in the 1950s and, in one scene, gets his impressionable students to read a lesson from a poetry textbook aloud. The worth of a poem, they read, should be measured on two axes: its artistic perfection and its importance. As the schoolboys start to map out graphs in their notebooks, Williams cuts them off. “Excrement,” he announces — that's what he thinks of the mathematical approach. A poem must be felt, not figured. He orders the boys to tear the page out of the textbook. “We're not laying pipe,” he says. “We're talking about poetry.”

    It is hard to disagree with the spirit of that moment. We should all be passionate about our academic interests, and daring enough to rip up hidebound rules that govern them. But the scene's explicit disdain for quantitative analysis of text is as out of date as it is wrong. These days, it is the humanities scholars who equip themselves with quantitative skills who are most able to sound their 'barbaric yawps' over the roofs of the world, as Williams urged his students to do.

    As the News Feature on page 436 shows, the field of digital humanities is flourishing, led by scientists such as those behind the innovative Google n-grams viewer, which can be used to track the frequencies of words and phrases as they appear in 4% of the books ever published. Whether mapping the transmission of Voltaire's letters across Europe, finding structural patterns in music across cultures or tracking the evolution of irregular verbs through time, these digital humanists have plenty to say. And they have the data to back it up.

    That is not to say that traditional approaches in the humanities will be disappearing any time soon, or that careful, interpretive readings by experienced scholars are as arbitrary as the learning-by-feeling espoused by Dead Poets Society. But digitization is marching on, and in all subjects, researchers who have their ears to the ground, rather than their heads in the sand, can hear the approaching drums. Every day, more and more of the media that make up both historical and contemporary culture are being converted to electronica.

    It seems just a matter of time before the humanities, like the social sciences before them, wholeheartedly embrace scientific methodology. And that should be reason to rejoice, not remonstrate. As Williams implored his young charges: carpe diem. Seize the day.

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    Poetry in motion. Nature 474, 420 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/474420b

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