The Science of Modern US Culture

This project explores the relationship between science and culture – culture, here, defined as humanistic texts, such as literature and journalism, that express the social norms and aesthetic values of a society. We seek to understand two specific questions: first, how do cultural texts help to disseminate important scientific concepts and innovations, such as climate science, to the broader public? Second, how do cultural texts also help to transform those ideas and in some cases, recursively influence the development of actual scientific practice and discovery? We hypothesize that science is often directly influenced by its expression in culture, and that by analyzing this relationship, we gain a better understanding of why and how some scientific ideas penetrate the public imagination faster and more effectively than others.
The project consists of two main parts. First, we plan to build a large corpus of cultural texts primarily from the United States, extending from 1880 to the present. This corpus will include novels, poetry, cultural criticism, journalism, as well as more ephemeral material, such as science-related pamphlets. Second, we will build a suite of computational tools tied to existing methods in natural language processing and topic modeling to parse this data and make it available for analysis and interpretation. Our goal is to track large scale patterns of thought in this cultural corpus, and compare these with patterns discovered in various knowledge domains. The project will culminate with a series of essays that explore the relationship between scientific and cultural discourse through specific case studies, such as the interplay between the development of climate science and the rise of science fiction focused on climate since the 1960s.