Six Degrees of Francis Bacon a New Website Seeks to Create a Facebook for Britons of Yore, Writes Mark Roth

By Roth, Mark | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 27, 2015 | Go to article overview

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon a New Website Seeks to Create a Facebook for Britons of Yore, Writes Mark Roth


Roth, Mark, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


In 2010, two English professors -- Christopher Warren of Carnegie Mellon University and his pal, Daniel Shore of Georgetown University -- were sitting in a Los Angeles bar when they came up with a great idea.

"We said, how awesome would it be if there were a Facebook of the past, and so we set about doing it," Mr. Warren recalled.

The result is a new website called Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (sixdegreesoffrancisbacon.com), covering the social network of well-known Britons who lived between 1500 and 1700. You can go to the site, plug in the name of a historic figure and get a graphic image of the "two degree" relationships involving that person -- that is, everyone he or she knew and everyone those other people knew.

The website was a collaborative effort of Mr. Warren, Mr. Shore, CMU postdoctoral student Jessica Otis and statistics experts at CMU, who developed computer algorithms that were able to comb through the voluminous Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and calculate how many times other people were mentioned in each biographical entry and determine how strong those relationships were. The site contains the names of 13,000 people and reveals 200,000 relationships, and the roster is constantly growing because other scholars can add names and biographical information to enrich the network.

The site is a play on the popular parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, in which players try to connect any actor to film star Kevin Bacon, using no more than six acquaintances in a chain. Mr. Warren said he has no idea whether Kevin Bacon knows about the scholarly version of the relationship game or is descended from Francis Bacon.

But the historic Mr. Bacon, who lived from 1561 to 1626, was well-connected in his own right, Mr. Warren said.

He is probably best known for his early advocacy of the scientific method -- the idea that scholars should do experiments to find out how natural phenomena work and keep testing the limits of human knowledge. He is also favored by some as the person who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays, although the evidence for that is scant.

But he was much more than an ivory-tower thinker and writer, Mr. Warren said. "Francis Bacon is at the center of all sorts of things in early modern Britain: He's a lawyer, he's a scientist, he's a natural philosopher. He's involved with colonial projects and mining projects and he's got his fingers in everything."

He died of an infection at 65, which tradition says was brought on by his experiments in seeing whether he could delay putrefaction in a chicken by stuffing it with snow.

On the website, primary relationships for each historic figure show up as blue circles, while those with lesser or weaker connections show up in red or orange circles. There are two reasons his team used the more eye-catching hues for the weaker relationships, Mr. Warren said.

First, the people who show up in red or orange might be good candidates for further research. "I think there are dissertations to be done here."

Second, many of the red and orange nodes belong to women. Men dominate the official biographies in those centuries, so the red and orange circles help emphasize the importance of women in that society. To enhance that emphasis, CMU is holding a workshop Jan. 23 called "Networking Early Modern Women," which is intended "to equip participants with the time, training and motivation to add women and their relationships" to the Six Degrees site.

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon also helps promote an idea that British poet John Donne expressed: "No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

"Too often," Mr. Warren said, "we have this sense that all these historic stories are their own stories, so that there's a history of science, a history of Shakespeare, a history of civil wars, but really, these histories involve people who went to school with each other and exchanged letters with each other and borrowed ideas from each other. …

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