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Stanford Technology Helps Scholars Get 'big Picture' of the Enlightenment

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Stanford's Dan Edelstein, Nicole Coleman, and Paula Findlen

Stanford University's Dan Edelstein, Nicole Coleman and Paula Findlen have mapped thousands of pieces of correspondence for the Republic of Letters project.

Credit: L. A. Cicero / Stanford University

Stanford University professors Dan Edelstein and Paula Findlen used visualization technology developed by professor Jeff Heer to map thousands of letters that were exchanged during the period of the Enlightenment. The project revealed new information on writers, philosophers, clergymen, and other early modern intellectuals who corresponded during that time.

For example, a computer model of the letters of Voltaire, who wrote about 15,000 letters over the course of his life, shows a complex geometry of red lines to major European cities, with a heavier yellow line showing that most correspondence connects directly to Paris. Edelstein says that networks are typically thought of as a modern invention of the Age of Information, when in fact they go all the way back to the Renaissance, with scholars of the time creating networks to stay abreast of the most recent news and discoveries. "We've known about these correspondences for a long time — some of them have been published — but no one has been able to piece together how these individual networks fit into a complete whole, something we call the Republic of Letters," Edelstein says.

The researchers say they have made some surprising discoveries. For example, while Voltaire admired England, surprisingly few letters were sent there. "We can begin to ask questions about them that were not necessarily apparent before," says Stanford professor Caroline Winterer.

From Stanford News
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Abstracts Copyright © 2009 Information Inc., Bethesda, Maryland, USA


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