Our world has been defined by arts and culture for thousands of years and no two cultural eras have ever been the same. Intellectual innovations and artistic revolutions produced so much of what we read in history books and ponder in museums that they have grown to define most of what we call our modern human race. Surprisingly, one of the most useful ways to understand the history of artistic culture is through numbers.

That's right--numbers. The art of quantifying qualitative phenomenon is increasingly used as a tool to study anthropological cultures.

A new study published in Science shows how researchers at Northeastern University did just that. Curious about the trends in intellectual migration and mobility over the last 2,000 years, they collected birth and death data of 150,000 notable historical intellectuals, and quantified the rises and falls of North American cultural hubs. The resulting video may bring to mind awe-inspiring NASA images of shooting stars and nebulas. 

But rather than showing us the awesomeness of space, the visual tells us about our fascinatingly dynamic cultural history, here on our own colorful planet.

Lead author Maximilian Schich and his colleagues did more than simply make a pretty computer graphic; they revealed lots of interesting clues about the cultural hubs of the past. For example, they found that the most intellectually cultural hubs were usually not the economic hubs, despite the logical (though ironic and contested) assumption that everything, including art, follows money.

By the 16th century, Europe was separated into two different cultural systems, Shich's team found. One was a "winner-takes-all" organization in which countries had singular cities that experienced overwhelming crowds of intellectuals and cultural activities, crammed into their salons and institutes (e.g. Paris). The other system was a "fit-gets-richer" organization in which a country (e.g. Germany) had multiple cities within it fighting over intellectuals, with some cities attracting only a small portion of notable people every hundred years.

They also found that none of the cultural hubs in the past 2,000 years shared all characteristics. The data could not create an "average" overall quality of distinct intellectual centers, meaning, perhaps that each city's uniqueness spawned its subsequent burst of intellectual and cultural phenomena.

And the cities in which the most notable intellectuals were born were not necessarily always the cities to which the most intellectuals flocked. The study uses examples such as Hollywood, the Alps and the French Riviera, all known for their picturesque, postcard-worthy beauty and ideal climates. On top of that, the general popularity of such locations varied considerably through time and spawned for different reasons. Take New York City, for example. No one can deny its popularity--just walk through the crowded streets and let the noises and smells assault your senses and you can tell it's been a cultural hub for decades, and intellectuals have been flocking there for a long time. But Schich's study found that in the 1920s, the city was known instead for being a source of intellectuals, rather than the destination, possibly more so than today. A significant portion of noteworthy people had originally been born in the city rather than having simply travelled there to share their talents.

How did Schich and his team at Northeastern use numbers to figure out the rich history of intellectual and cultural migration? They used enormous data sets, such as the curated General Artist Lexicon that describes information about more than 150,000 notable artists. They established geographical patterns using the data from the Lexicon as well as the Freebase, which has 2,200 artists out of 120,000 noteworthy individuals. Finally, they validated their results using the Getty Union List of Artist Names.

While it seems like a huge feat, this study won't be their last.

"We're starting out to do something which is called cultural science where we're in a very similar trajectory as systems biology for example," explained Schich. "As data sets about birth and death locations grow, the approach will be able to reveal an even more complete picture of history. In the next five to 10 years, we'll have considerably larger amounts of data and then we can do more and better, address more questions."

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