Fold-up Font Friday

Origami alphabet "M"
Want a folded paper 3D alphabet? Of course you do! Check out this extruded origami text pattern generator.

This free web-based tool generates your text as a fold-up extruded 3D origami model. It’s based on this paper from Erik Demaine, Martin Demaine, and Jason Ku at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. [From via Boing Boing]

The alphabet’s creators have also devised an alphabet made by the hinged dissection of a square. [From]

Make Online Origami Font.jpg

Photos From an Arctic Outpost Where Landscapes Are Alien and Dying Is Forbidden

Aurora Borealis above the Adventdalen valley


The imposing entrance to the Global Seed Vault.

Aurora Borealis lights the sky above the Adventdalen valley. This eight-minute exposure reveals the nearly parallel motion of the stars, due to Svalbard’s proximity to the North Pole.

The vehicles Wu and his compatriots used to get around. “Probably the closest I’ll ever get to riding an Imperial Speeder Bike on Hoth,” says Wu.

The tracks of a polar bear, likely male. It is illegal to leave the borders of Longyearbyen without a gun for self-defense.

The last picture Wu took at Svalbard – a Polaroid from the lounge of the most northerly airport in the world.

The Noorderlicht, a ship that sails into the Tempelfjord every winter, where it allows the ice to form around it. While here, it is used as a base camp for expeditions. “I stayed outside and played with the huskies as everyone went inside for cookies and a hot drink,” says Wu. “I couldn’t stand the thought of going from ‘extreme outside’ to ‘extreme inside.'”

The abandoned aerial transport station used to convey coal from the mines. While still an active coal mining site, Svalbard’s main industry is now tourism, and coal is transported in trucks.

An aircraft fire simulator used by Longyearbyen Airport crews for practice. The ground is covered in several inches of ice.

These antennae form part of the SOUSY Svalbard Radar, a weather monitoring facility. Spotted in waist-high snow on the way out of Longyearbyen.

Wu says of this image, “It was a lot colder than the photograph suggests. The Polaroids need to be dried and stored carefully after developing. Everyone else on the trip was shooting digital while I was struggling with light meters, loading film and storing prints in my jacket.”

The frozen surface of Tempelfjord in Svalbard.

An expired, 80 or less ISO Polaroid of the Northern Lights.

The midday sun, still riding the horizon line, as seen from the summit of the terminal morraine of a glacier.

After an unsuccessful trip to witness the aurora borealis from the northern tip of Norway, photographer Reuben Wu decided to venture even further afield in search of the celestial light show. Choosing the remote, frozen island of Svalbard, Wu quickly made its strange environment the new focus of his time there.

“The northern lights ended up almost like a secondary thing,” he says. “I was resigned to the fact that they would just appear or they wouldn’t, and I wanted to see as much of this island as possible.”

With four different film cameras in tow, he developed his shots in the field and came back from the brutal, beautiful island with what look like postcards from another world.

Svalbard was ceded to Norway in 1920 and sits between the Barents and Greenland seas a little more than 800 miles from the North Pole. The arctic island is inhospitable, with average temperatures that range from -42.8 and 3.2 °F, and the ever-present risk of being mauled by a polar bear means any trip beyond camp is a heavily armed affair.

Conditions are harsh enough in Svalbard that the island’s largest town of Longyearbyen forbids dying: The town cemetery held its last burial some 70 years ago, when it became clear that the permafrost wasn’t allowing bodies to decompose. Bodies were so well preserved, in fact, that scientists in the late ’90s were able to recover genetic material from the virus behind the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic that killed 40 million people.

“Someone from there told me it’s not a place for the weak,” says Wu. “You have to be strong as hell.“

The strange effects of living at such a high latitude are sometimes more subtle. For example, because the axis point of the Earth’s rotation is so close, long exposures reveal that stars near the horizon move across the sky in nearly straight lines. Wu was there in February, when the sun would rise just to the horizon around 10:30 in the morning, lazily drifting along the hilltops until about 5:30 in the evening, when it finally set.

“It messes with your idea of daytime,” says Wu. “It feels like golden hour all day.”

The series was shot entirely on film, but the images taken with Polaroid exhibit a special degree of distortion that attests to the island’s extremely forbidding environment. The vintage cameras and expired film add an otherworldly haze to the photos of already-strange sights.

“The way the Polaroid captures visuals is a lot more impressionistic, it’s kind of almost accidental,” says Wu. “I think about the pictures I take a lot, but the actual results almost look like they’re by chance.”

Traversing the island’s formidable landscapes was done mostly by snowmobile, making it a challenge to keep sensitive film cameras and the liquid in the film itself insulated from the elements. While traveling, Wu stored the gear under layers of clothes to keep them (mostly) warm enough to operate. The drastic temperature shift of going from a heated hut to frozen wasteland meant condensation could get in the way of any impulse to take a spontaneous photo. “I wanted to see how the film and the cameras would react to cold, and the answer was, not very well,” he says. “You can do as much research on the Internet as you want, but there are always going to be problems that present themselves to you, and some of them are going to be more serious than others.”

In a place like Svalbard, unexpected discoveries are bound to emerge from the mists, whether the remains of Soviet monuments or a wooden ship trapped in a frozen fjord, so being ready for the unexpected helps. Some you can count on, like the Global Seed Vault (or the Doomsday Seed Vault, if you prefer), an ominous food backup project near Longyearbyen that counts the Rockefellers, Bill Gates, and GMO giant Monsanto among its investors. Marked by a blast-proof, jutting concrete gate, the abandoned mine-cum-bunker houses millions of copies of seeds from the world’s crops. On the way back from photographing the vault’s entrance way and paneled artwork (which Wu describes as looking like a church from another planet), the group noticed what looked like a red airplane stuck to the side of a mountain. Deciding to venture over to the strange site, they soon discovered that it wasn’t a plane, but a mock-up, a training tool that is set ablaze for firefighters to practice dousing aircraft fires. “It’s quite refreshing to find things you have no ideas about,” says Wu. “You start thinking, what is the story behind this, who built it, what is it for, when is it from?”

Photos from the series will be on display in Chicago from November 23-30 at Rational Park, and at the Schneider Gallery in Chicago from January 10 through February 23.

All photos: Reuben Wu

Czech scientist Jan Evangelista Purkinje’s drawings of the shapes made from pushing on his closed eye

Purkinje's drawings

Czech scientist Jan Evangelista Purknye's (1787-1869) drawings of the shapes made from pushing on his closed eye. He was a proponent of self-experimentation who tested over fifty dangerous drugs on himself, and took to his eye pushing research with abandon: “When I close my eyes, they begin to shine, just like the dots and lines,” he wrote. “It all ends with a dark rhombus with blunt corners, surrounded by a dull shine resembling a phosphorescent light. A total darkness follows.”

Czech scientist Jan Evangelista Purknye‘s (1787-1869) made drawings of the shapes “seen” from pushing on his closed eye. He was a proponent of self-experimentation who tested over fifty dangerous drugs on himself, and took to his eye pushing research with abandon: “When I close my eyes, they begin to shine, just like the dots and lines,” he wrote. “It all ends with a dark rhombus with blunt corners, surrounded by a dull shine resembling a phosphorescent light. A total darkness follows.”

Purkinje’s Vision: The Dawning of Neuroscience,  by Nicholas Wade and Josef Brozek, is an exploration of the scientist’s work on visual phenomena. It is available through Taylor & Francis eBookstore.

Purkinje's Vision cover

A Recent Sampling of Letters to the Editor of the London Review of Books


Vol. 35 No. 22 · 21 November 2013

London Review of Books cover, 7 November 2013

The Reviewer’s Song

Andrew O’Hagan writes: ‘Joan Didion gave me her hand and she was so thin it felt like I was holding a butterfly’ (LRB, 7 November). A beautiful sentence, but I wondered about the simile’s plausibility. It’s been reported that Didion weighs less than eighty lbs. She’s so thin her doctors have put her on an ice cream diet to keep her mass up. A woman’s hand is said to be 0.5 per cent of her body weight. So if Didion weighs 75 lbs, her hand probably weighs about six ounces. The world’s heaviest butterfly, the female Queen Victoria Birdwing, weighs about two grams. There are about 28 grams in an ounce, and Joan Didion’s hand probably weighs about the same as holding 86 female Queen Victoria Birdwings. It would be difficult to hold them all in your hand because each one has a wingspan of 18 centimetres. The smallest butterfly in the world is the North American Pygmy Blue and you’d probably need thousands of them to tip the scales against one of Didion’s fingers. None of this is to detract from the loveliness of O’Hagan’s sentence. We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Penny Cartwright

Andrew O’Hagan quotes Norman Mailer telling him that his ex-wife Jeannie Campbell was Lord Beaverbrook’s daughter, before impersonating ‘the great English press baron at length’. Campbell was, in fact, Beaverbrook’s granddaughter. And Beaverbrook wasn’t English, but Canadian. Jeannie Campbell’s cut-glass vowels were a legacy of her childhood as the daughter of the Duke of Argyll (family name Campbell), who despite his Scottish heritage, spoke with all the haughty affectation of his class.

William MacFarlane

In Delville Wood

Neal Ascherson says he came away from Delville Wood with some green acorns (LRB, 7 November). Those acorns have a fascinating history. Following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes a large number of French Protestants sought refuge among their Dutch co-religionists at the French Protestants. They carried vines with them, and also acorns from which to grow the oak they would need for winebarrels. The Huguenots are therefore credited with founding the South African wine industry; and many vineyards there bear the names of Huguenot families. In fact, the majestic oak trees that now dominate the South African national memorial at Delville Wood were grown from acorns that were brought back to France in 1920 from La Cotte, one of the original Huguenot plantations established in Franschhoek (‘French Corner’) in the Western Cape in 1688.

Clive Rainbow
Speen, Buckinghamshire

Reading Neal Ascherson’s ‘In Delville Wood’, I thought of a survivor of what Liddell-Hart called ‘the bloodiest battle hell of 1916’ named Bobby Grantham. I knew him when I was a boy. He had been gassed during the Battle of the Somme, and around 1948, he was living at the Hotel De Aar, managed by my father, in the middle of the Great Karoo. It was thought that the air there would be kind to his ruined lungs. A large oxygen tank always stood at the door of his room at the hotel.

I was also reminded of John Buchan’s 1919 novel Mr Standfast, which is dedicated to the South African 1st Infantry Brigade, butchered at Delville Wood. In its universe, Germans are without exception demonic or brutish; blacks are ‘niggers’; detours into anti-semitism spice things up. Putting all that poison in print didn’t stop Buchan from becoming Baron Tweedsmuir, an honorary fellow of Oxford University and governor-general of Canada, where he was eventually graced with a state funeral. And he evidently had a lovely Great War himself: he wrote speeches for Field Marshal Haig and then was appointed director of information under the British propaganda minister, Lord Beaverbrook. He was the kind of man who made the horrors of Delville Wood possible.

Peter Dreyer
Charlottesville, Virginia

Sold Out

Stefan Collini writes that British business enterprises have a mixed record whereas British public institutions have a very good one (LRB, 24 October). The observation reminded me of an encounter at the beginning of the 1990s at a reception held at the British Embassy in Tokyo to promote British higher education. A commercial attaché gave a short speech about a new dawn for British universities: they would become more like British businesses, dynamic, healthy, enterprising, swift to adapt to market conditions etc. I had recently returned from several years’ teaching in an American university and was astonished and embarrassed by this guff. Afterwards I struck up a conversation with a polite and reserved Japanese academic. It emerged that he held a chair of pathology at the University of Tokyo, and had special responsibility for determining the exact cause of death of members of the imperial Japanese family. ‘Your universities,’ he said later, after we’d had quite a few drinks, ‘they will follow British business model? But British business is … I am sorry … it is not well. It is dead, and your universities are famous and respected. They are not dead.’

Vaughan Grylls

Stefan Collini’s article on higher education in Britain prompts much useful reflection on parallel developments in our children’s schooling and in our increasingly privatised NHS. Just one question: the career of Roger Brown, author of Everything for Sale?: The Marketisation of Higher Education, is given in some detail, but nothing is said of Helen Carasso, with whom he wrote the book. Did she just make the tea?

Anne Summers
London NW11

Misplaced Irony

Richard Overy points to ‘an irony’ that Rommel, who had excelled as a mobile commander in 1940, was called upon to execute Hitler’s wishes for a fixed forward defence on the Channel coast in 1944 (LRB, 10 October). Not really: Rommel had learned in the interim what Allied air superiority could achieve, and feared that armoured reserves stationed in depth would be destroyed on the march up to wherever the Allied landings came. He wrote to Jodl, chief of staff of the Wehrmacht, to this effect in April 1944. In this connection, incidentally, one way to distinguish photographs of the German army in the early war years from those of the later period is that, in the later ones, the armoured vehicles are generally festooned with boughs and foliage as an air-defence precaution.

James Thorne
Crosby, Merseyside

Thank God for the Leavisites

T.J. Clark was lucky in the two Leavisite teachers who taught him in grammar schools in Lancashire and Bristol (Letters, 10 October). I was not so lucky in my tutor at King’s College London, just down from Cambridge and an ardent Leavisite. She reduced my tutorial mate to tears by pouring withering scorn on her admiration for Dylan Thomas, bad-mouthed our head of department, Geoffrey Bullough, and told us music was a waste of time, presumably because it could not be spelled out in what she took to be Leavisian critical language.

Alan Rudrum
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, British Columbia

In Glass Houses

Dominic Dromgoole and Clive Stafford Smith understandably refrain from applauding the Guantánamo force-feeding of mentally competent hunger-strikers (LRB, 7 November). But, before we claim any superiority, we should remember that for the last 13 years Ian Brady has been the victim of the same treatment in Ashworth Hospital with the explicit approval of our judiciary, confirmed by Mr Justice Kay on Brady’s judicial review of the decision.

Benedict Birnberg
London SE3

Bzzz …

Tristram Stuart’s piece brought back memories of my father’s beekeeping in the 1950s (LRB, 24 October). Our aunt also kept bees in her garden in West Hampstead and would drive them to Kent for the summer. Our first colony arrived in a buzzy metal mesh box courtesy of Carter Patterson. We had two swarms – one onto a pear tree in our garden in Woodford and another into a neighbour’s garden. We retrieved both and added them to our growing collection of hives. As we understood it at the time, ancient common law allowed pursuit of a swarm over private land, and no prosecution for trespass could be brought against a beekeeper keeping his swarm in sight.

Roger Gregory

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.

Lady Gaga Is About to Fly in a Dress Called VOLANTIS

"Volantis" dress


Lady Gaga Is About to Fly in a Dress Called VOLANTIS in a Warehouse in Brooklyn for ArtRave

Image via Complex Art+Design/VOLANTIS




In anticipation of her new album, ARTPOP, Lady Gaga plans to reach new heights, literally. As part of ArtRave, Gaga’s fashion, music, art, and tech mash-up party tonight in a Brooklyn warehouse, Gaga will soar above her audiences in a flying dress called VOLANTIS.

VOLANTIS was conceived by Studio XO in Gaga’s TechHaus. It has six booms in a hex formation and is powered by 50 volt batteries. The dress also has a carbon fiber molded casket designed to mimic a fitted couture dress. This futuristic machine will make Gaga fly.

UPDATE NOV. 10 6:47 P.M. ET: Lady Gaga steps into VOLANTIS.

UPDATE NOV. 10 6:58 P.M. ET: Gaga lifts off!

[Link to Vine video]

A blueprint of the dress:

Blueprint of Lady Gaga flying dress

Roentgenium has no uses whatsoever

Hipster cat says "Roentgenium? Oh, you mean Unununium"

Element of the week: roentgenium

What do unununium and the first ever Nobel Prize in Physics share in common?

Image: Cheezburger.

This week’s element is roentgenium, which has the atomic symbol, Rg, and atomic number, 111. Originally known by its temporary name, unununium (Uuu), this element was named in honour of German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who discovered X-rays and who, in 1901, was awarded the first ever Nobel Prize in physics.

Roentgenium is predicted to be a noble metal (it is resistant to corrosion and oxidation in moist air) that is solid at room temperature and a pale silver-colour. It is predicated to be extremely dense (roughly 28.7 g/cm3) — denser even than osmium, which is the heaviest known element with a density of 22.61 g/cm3.

Like all the other super-heavy synthetic elements, roentgenium does not exist in the wild, although intriguingly, it may occur naturally in trace amounts as a primordial element. This is based on the claim in 2006 that two isotopes of roentgenium (261 and 265) were detected in a sample of natural gold — which is roentgenium’s “little sister” element, occurring immediately above it on the periodic table.

As with all the other synthetic elements, roentgenium is radioactive and extremely unstable. Seven isotopes have been detected so far; the most stable of which is roentgenium-281, with a half-life of 26 seconds. All of its isotopes decay by releasing high energy alpha particles (helium nuclei) — except roentgenium-281, which undergoes spontaneous fission to give rise to several smaller elements.

Roentgenium was first created by the Gesellschaft für Schwerionenforschung (GSI) near Darmstadt, Germany in 1994. One atom of roentgenium-272 was created by bombarding bismuth-209 with nickel-64 and repeated that experiment in 2002, creating three more atoms of roentgenium-272. This isotope has a half-life of roughly 3.8 milliseconds.

Roentgenium has no uses whatsoever.

In this video, our favourite chemistry professor visits GSI and tells us how these monster-sized elements are synthesised, detected and why it takes so long to confirm their existence:

Video journalist Brady Haran is the man with the camera and the University of Nottingham is the place with the chemists. You can follow Brady on twitter @periodicvideos and the University of Nottingham on twitter @UniofNottingham

You’ve already met these elements:

Darmstadtium: Ds, atomic number 110
Meitnerium: Mt, atomic number 109
Hassium: Hs, atomic number 108
Bohrium: Bh, atomic number 107
Seaborgium: Sg, atomic number 106
Dubnium: Db, atomic number 105
Rutherfordium: Rf, atomic number 104
Lawrencium: Lw, atomic number 103
Nobelium: No, atomic number 102
Mendelevium: Md, atomic number 101
Fermium: Fm, atomic number 100
Einsteinium: Es, atomic number 99
Californium: Cf, atomic number 98
Berkelium: Bk, atomic number 97
Curium: Cm, atomic number 96
Americium: Am, atomic number 95
Plutonium: Pu, atomic number 94
Neptunium: Np, atomic number 93
Uranium: U, atomic number 92
Protactinium: Pa, atomic number 91
Thorium: Th, atomic number 90
Actinium: Ac, atomic number 89
Radium: Ra, atomic number 88
Francium: Fr, atomic number 87
Radon: Rn, atomic number 86
Astatine: As, atomic number 85
Polonium: Po, atomic number 84
Bismuth: Bi, atomic number 83
Lead: Pb, atomic number 82
Thallium: Tl, atomic number 81
Mercury: Hg, atomic number 80
Gold: Au, atomic number 79
Platinum: Pt, atomic number 78
Iridium: Ir, atomic number 77
Osmium: Os, atomic number 76
Rhenium: Re, atomic number 75
Tungsten: W, atomic number 74
Tantalum: Ta, atomic number 73
Hafnium: Hf, atomic number 72
Lutetium: Lu, atomic number 71
Ytterbium: Yb, atomic number 70
Thulium: Tm, atomic number 69
Erbium: Er, atomic number 68
Holmium: Ho, atomic number 67
Dysprosium: Dy, atomic number 66
Terbium: Tb, atomic number 65
Gadolinium: Gd, atomic number 64
Europium: Eu, atomic number 63
Samarium: Sm, atomic number 62
Promethium: Pm, atomic number 61
Neodymium: Nd, atomic number 60
Praseodymium: Pr, atomic number 59
Cerium: Ce, atomic number 58
Lanthanum: La, atomic number 57
Barium: Ba, atomic number 56
Cæsium: Cs, atomic number 55
Xenon: Xe, atomic number 54
Iodine: I, atomic number 53
Tellurium: Te, atomic number 52
Antimony: Sb, atomic number 51
Tin: Sn, atomic number 50
Indium: In, atomic number 49
Cadmium: Cd, atomic number 48
Silver: Ag, atomic number 47
Palladium: Pd, atomic number 46
Rhodium: Rh, atomic number 45
Ruthenium: Ru, atomic number 44
Technetium: Tc, atomic number 43
Molybdenum: Mo, atomic number 42
Niobium: Ni, atomic number 41
Zirconium: Zr, atomic number 40
Yttrium: Y, atomic number 39
Strontium: Sr, atomic number 38
Rubidium: Rr, atomic number 37
Krypton: Kr, atomic number 36
Bromine: Br, atomic number 35
Selenium: Se, atomic number 34
Arsenic: As, atomic number 33
Germanium: Ge, atomic number 32
Gallium: Ga, atomic number 31
Zinc: Zn, atomic number 30
Copper: Cu, atomic number 29
Nickel: Ni, atomic number 28
Cobalt: Co, atomic number 27
Iron: Fe, atomic number 26
Manganese: Mn, atomic number 25
Chromium: Cr, atomic number 24
Vanadium: V, atomic number 23
Titanium: Ti, atomic number 22
Scandium: Sc, atomic number 21
Calcium: Ca, atomic number 20
Potassium: K, atomic number 19
Argon: Ar, atomic number 18
Chlorine: Cl, atomic number 17
Sulfur: S, atomic number 16
Phosphorus: P, atomic number 15
Silicon: Si, atomic number 14
Aluminium: Al, atomic number 13
Magnesium: Mg, atomic number 12
Sodium: Na, atomic number 11
Neon: Ne, atomic number 10
Fluorine: F, atomic number 9
Oxygen: O, atomic number 8
Nitrogen: N, atomic number 7
Carbon: C, atomic number 6
Boron: B, atomic number 5
Beryllium: Be, atomic number 4
Lithium: Li, atomic number 3
Helium: He, atomic number 2
Hydrogen: H, atomic number 1

Here’s the Royal Society of Chemistry‘s interactive Periodic Table of the Elements that is just really really fun to play with!

Artist Makes Pixelated Photos by Stitching ‘Pixels’ on Them



Embroidered photographs by Diane Meyer

Artist Diane Meyer adds pixelated sections to her photographs by embroidering pixel-like squares directly on to the photos with a needle and thread. The embroidered areas obscure the underlying photo, much like digital pixelation is used to obscure portions of a photo or video. She has used the technique on photos from her past in the series “Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten,” and on photos of Cold War relics in Berlin in “Berlin.”

Embroidered photographs by Diane Meyer

Embroidered photographs by Diane Meyer

via Faith is Torment

Here’s How Memes Went Viral — In the 1800s

Content sharing between 19th century newspapers


Thicker lines indicate more content-sharing between 19th century newspapers. Image: Ryan Cordell / Infectious texts project

The story had everything — exotic locale, breathtaking engineering, Napoleon Bonaparte. No wonder the account of a lamplit flat-bottom boat journey through the Paris sewer went viral after it was published — on May 23, 1860.

At least 15 American newspapers reprinted it, exposing tens of thousands of readers to the dank wonders of the French city’s “splendid system of sewerage.”

Twitter is faster and HuffPo more sophisticated, but the parasitic dynamics of networked media were fully functional in the 19th century. For proof, look no further than the Infectious Texts project, a collaboration of humanities scholars and computer scientists.

The project expects to launch by the end of the month. When it does, researchers and the public will be able to comb through widely reprinted texts identified by mining 41,829 issues of 132 newspapers from the Library of Congress. While this first stage focuses on texts from before the Civil War, the project eventually will include the later 19th century and expand to include magazines and other publications, says Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English at Northeastern University and a leader of the project.

Some of the stories were printed in 50 or more newspapers, each with thousands to tens of thousands of subscribers. The most popular of them most likely were read by hundreds of thousands of people, Cordell says. Most have been completely forgotten. “Almost none of those are texts that scholars have studied, or even knew existed,” he said.

Yellow dots represent hotspots of recycled content. The shading indicates the number of publications in a region recorded by the 1840 census. Image: Ryan Cordell / Infectious texts project

The tech may have been less sophisticated, but some barriers to virality were low in the 1800s. Before modern copyright laws there were no legal or even cultural barriers to borrowing content, Cordell says. Newspapers borrowed freely. Large papers often had an “exchange editor” whose job it was to read through other papers and clip out interesting pieces. “They were sort of like BuzzFeed employees,” Cordell said.

Clips got sorted into drawers according to length; when the paper needed, say, a 3-inch piece to fill a gap, they’d pluck out a story of the appropriate length and publish it, often verbatim.

Fast forward a century and a half and many of these newspapers have been scanned and digitized. Northeastern computer scientist David Smith developed an algorithm that mines this vast trove of text for reprinted items by hunting for clusters of five words that appear in the same sequence in multiple publications (Google uses a similar concept for its Ngram viewer).

The project is sponsored by the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks at Northeastern and the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Cordell says the main goal is to build a resource for other scholars, but he’s already capitalizing on it for his own research, using modern mapping and network analysis tools to explore how things went viral back then.

Counting page views from two centuries ago is anything but an exact science, but Cordell has used Census records to estimate how many people were living within a certain distance of where a particular piece was published and combined that with newspaper circulation data to estimate what fraction of the population would have seen it (a quarter to a third, for the most infectious texts, he says).

He’s also interested in mapping how the growth of the transcontinental railroad — and later the telegraph and wire services — changed the way information moved across the country. The animation below shows the spread of a single viral text, a poem by the Scottish poet Charles MacKay, overlaid on the developing railroad system. The one at the very bottom depicts how newspapers grew with the country from the colonial era to modern times, often expanding into a territory before the political boundaries had been drawn.

Another approach takes advantage of the same type of network analysis tools social scientists use to map the flow of information in Twitter and other social media. Cordell has found that certain cities that don’t get much attention from scholars were actually important hubs in the 19th century information economy. Nashville is one of them. “It makes sense if you think about it,” Cordell said. “It was the center of the country at the time.”

Some of the texts that went viral in the 1800s aren’t all that different from the things people post on Facebook today, Cordell says. Political rants were popular, for example, as were recipes and travel stories.

Poems also turn up frequently, as well as another type of writing Cordell calls vignettes. These are sentimental stories that are presented as if they’re real, but aren’t attributable to an author and lack details that would make it possible to verify them. One example is a letter, supposedly tucked into a book by a dying woman and found by her husband after her death. She urges him to remember her fondly and live a good life after she’s gone. “These are fascinating to me because they blur the line between fact and fiction, which sort of exemplifies the 19th century newspaper,” Cordell said.

The vignettes often had a moral to them. On popular variety, temperance stories, were aimed at getting drunks to sober up. Cordell likens these cautionary tales to the email you’ve probably gotten from a concerned aunt or uncle that turns out to be based on a bogus urban legend when you look it up on Snopes.

The media may have changed, but a century and a half later many of the messages are surprisingly familiar.