FIVE YEARS AGO, Erez Lieberman Aiden ’02 was slogging toward the end of a laborious linguistics study when he realized he was going about it all wrong. He and fellow Harvard graduate student Jean-Baptiste Michel wanted to trace how the use of irregular verbs — such as “go” and “sing” — has evolved over time. To help them do this, an undergraduate student spent months paging through a dozen library books on old English grammar to compile a list of irregular verbs, which Aiden and Michel then analyzed for patterns.
To verify their results, the two went back to Harvard’s Widener Library to check out the grammar books again. But this time, they noticed that somebody else also had been borrowing them. The books later showed up on the website of the Google Books project, in which the search giant had begun to digitize the collections of major university libraries. That’s when it hit them: What they were doing “was completely obsolete,” Aiden says.
Aiden realized that Google was creating a digital archive of the written historical record. Searching how the use of words has changed over centuries would make it possible to track cultural, linguistic, and historic trends, the two graduate students saw. They convinced Google to let them develop software tools to probe the company’s digital library. In late 2010, they unveiled what they could do by searching 5 million books — including tracing the rise and fall of inventions, ideas, and individuals’ fame; and detecting the suppression of artists and intellectuals. They declared the birth of a new field that they dubbed “culturomics.” It has shaken up the world of humanities and landed the two on the front pages of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal.
THAT AIDEN, NOW 32, WOULD TAKE ON such a project at all might be considered surprising: He is first a mathematician and scientist, not a humanist; at the time of his linguistics work, he was working on his Ph.D. in mathematics and biomedical engineering. The project reinforced an important lesson, Aiden says, half-joking: “It seems to be possible to study language change and these kinds of seemingly nutty subjects without completely wrecking one’s scientific career.”
At least that has been true for Aiden, who as a graduate student and postdoc ranged freely across disciplines with the support of his advisers. As a biologist, Aiden produced the first three-dimensional maps of the human genome, work that may help reveal how cells malfunction in disease. As an engineer, he came up with an award-winning idea for an electronic shoe insert — now in testing — that can sense poor balance in the elderly. All six of his research papers were published in the world’s top two science journals, Science and Nature, an astonishing record for a young scientist. He is now a visiting faculty member at Google and a junior fellow of the selective Harvard Society of Fellows, a position that allows him to pursue independent research for three years in any area that interests him — as befits a modern-day Renaissance man.
“Don’t try to figure out what box Erez fits in. He doesn’t really fit in a box,” says Eric Lander ’78, director of the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT and one of Aiden’s Ph.D. advisers. “He’s what universities should have: people who are just broadly creative and able to be effective in many different fields.”
“Erez is very different from any scientist I know,” says Harvard mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, who advised Aiden on both his Princeton senior thesis and his Ph.D. Most scientists work their way step-by-step through a problem, Nowak says, but Aiden “takes a long time to just think. Then he goes for very big projects.”
Aiden says that’s because he is attracted to research that has a slim chance of working but could have a tremendous payoff. “I have trouble working on projects that aren’t extraordinarily exciting, that I believe are game-changers.
“Boredom is this tremendous warning sign,” he continues. “If when contemplating the big picture, it doesn’t make your heart race with excitement, that’s a warning sign.”