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Thu, Apr 25, 2024

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Darwin's Semantic Voyage: Exploration and Exploitation of Victorian Science in the Reading Notebooks  (Conferences / Seminars / Lectures)

Speaker: Colin Allen, Provost Professor, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Indiana Bloomington

During the 23 years between his voyage on the Beagle and publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin meticulously documented the books he read. His Reading Notebooks thus enable the study of inputs to his creative process between 1837 and 1860. We located digitized full texts of 670 of his nonfiction readings (390 of which he classified as work-related reading) and applied topic modeling to them. We then used the semantic space of the topic models in a novel way to measure the distances that Darwin traveled between books. These measurements permitted us to investigate the trade-off he made between reading within a given domain and switching to new domains. Our analysis shows that Darwin's behavior shifts from exploitation to exploration on multiple timescales, and that at the longest timescale these shifts correlate with major intellectual epochs of his career. Furthermore, contrasting his reading order with the publication order of the same texts, we find Darwin's consumption of the texts is more exploratory than the culture's production of them.

For more information, please contact Thomas Padilla at

Location: Main Library, Green Room (W444)
Price: free
Sponsor: Administration
Contact: Thomas Padilla
email pic
phone pic 517-353-8700