Category Archives: humanities

perelman’s proof / wsj on open peer review

Last week got off to an exciting start when the Wall Street Journal ran a story about “networked books,” the Institute’s central meme and very own coinage. It turns out we were quoted in another WSJ item later that week, this time looking at the science journal Nature, which over the summer has been experimenting with opening up its peer review process to the scientific community (unfortunately, this article, like the networked books piece, is subscriber only).
180px-Grigori_Perelman.jpg I like this article because it smartly weaves in the story of Grigory (Grisha) Perelman, which I had meant to write about earlier. Perelman is a Russian topologist who last month shocked the world by turning down the Fields medal, the highest honor in mathematics. He was awarded the prize for unraveling a famous geometry problem that had baffled mathematicians for a century.
There’s an interesting publishing angle to this, which is that Perelman never submitted his groundbreaking papers to any mathematics journals, but posted them directly to, an open “pre-print” server hosted by Cornell. This, combined with a few emails notifying key people in the field, guaranteed serious consideration for his proof, and led to its eventual warranting by the mathematics community. The WSJ:

…the experiment highlights the pressure on elite science journals to broaden their discourse. So far, they have stood on the sidelines of certain fields as a growing number of academic databases and organizations have gained popularity.
One Web site,, maintained by Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has become a repository of papers in fields such as physics, mathematics and computer science. In 2002 and 2003, the reclusive Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman circumvented the academic-publishing industry when he chose to post his groundbreaking work on the Poincaré conjecture, a mathematical problem that has stubbornly remained unsolved for nearly a century. Dr. Perelman won the Fields Medal, for mathematics, last month.

(Warning: obligatory horn toot.)

“Obviously, Nature’s editors have read the writing on the wall [and] grasped that the locus of scientific discourse is shifting from the pages of journals to a broader online conversation,” wrote Ben Vershbow, a blogger and researcher at the Institute for the Future of the Book, a small, Brooklyn, N.Y., , nonprofit, in an online commentary. The institute is part of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication.

Also worth reading is this article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber in The New Yorker, which reveals Perelman as a true believer in the gift economy of ideas:

Perelman, by casually posting a proof on the Internet of one of the most famous problems in mathematics, was not just flouting academic convention but taking a considerable risk. If the proof was flawed, he would be publicly humiliated, and there would be no way to prevent another mathematician from fixing any errors and claiming victory. But Perelman said he was not particularly concerned. “My reasoning was: if I made an error and someone used my work to construct a correct proof I would be pleased,” he said. “I never set out to be the sole solver of the Poincaré.”

Perelman’s rejection of all conventional forms of recognition is difficult to fathom at a time when every particle of information is packaged and owned. He seems almost like a kind of mystic, a monk who abjures worldly attachment and dives headlong into numbers. But according to Nasar and Gruber, both Perelman’s flouting of academic publishing protocols and his refusal of the Fields medal were conscious protests against what he saw as the petty ego politics of his peers. He claims now to have “retired” from mathematics, though presumably he’ll continue to work on his own terms, in between long rambles through the streets of St. Petersburg.
Regardless, Perelman’s case is noteworthy as an example of the kind of critical discussions that scholars can now orchestrate outside the gate. This sort of thing is generally more in evidence in the physical and social sciences, but ought too to be of great interest to scholars in the humanities, who have only just begun to explore the possibilities. Indeed, these are among our chief inspirations for MediaCommons.
Academic presses and journals have long functioned as the gatekeepers of authoritative knowledge, determining which works see the light of day and which ones don’t. But open repositories like ArXiv have utterly changed the calculus, and Perelman’s insurrection only serves to underscore this fact. Given the abundance of material being published directly from author to public, the critical task for the editor now becomes that of determining how works already in the daylight ought to be received. Publishing isn’t an endpoint, it’s the beginning of a process. The networked press is a guide, a filter, and a discussion moderator.
Nature seems to grasp this and is trying with its experiment to reclaim some of the space that has opened up in front of its gates. Though I don’t think they go far enough to effect serious change, their efforts certainly point in the right direction.

call for papers: what to do with a million books

The Humanities Division at the University of Chicago and the College of Science and Letters at the Illinois Institute of Technology are hosting an intriguing colloquium on the future of research in the humanities in response to the rapid growth of digital archives. They are currently accepting paper proposals, which are due at the end of August.
Here is the call for papers:
What to Do with a Million Books: Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities and Computer Science
Sponsored by the Humanities Division at the University of Chicago and the College of Science and Letters at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Chicago, November 5th & 6th, 2006
Submission Deadline: August 31st, 2006
The goal of this colloquium is to bring together researchers and scholars in the Humanities and Computer Sciences to examine the current state of Digital Humanities as a field of intellectual inquiry and to identify and explore new directions and perspectives for future research.
In the wake of recent large-scale digitization projects aimed at providing universal access to the world’s vast textual repositories, humanities scholars, librarians and computer scientists find themselves newly challenged to make such resources functional and meaningful.
As Gregory Crane recently pointed out (1), digital access to “a million books” confronts us with the need to provide viable solutions to a range of difficult problems: analog to digital conversion, machine translation, information retrieval and data mining, to name a few. Moreover, mass digitization leads not just to problems of scale: new goals can also be envisioned, for example, catalyzing the development of new computational tools for context-sensitive analysis. If we are to build systems to interrogate usefully massive text collections for meaning, we will need to draw not only on the technical expertise of computer scientists but also learn from the traditions of self-reflective, inter-disciplinary inquiry practiced by humanist scholars.
The book as the locus of much of our knowledge has long been at the center of discussions in digital humanities. But as mass digitization efforts accelerate a change in focus from a print-culture to a networked, digital-culture, it will become necessary to pay more attention to how the notion of a text itself is being re-constituted. We are increasingly able to interact with texts in novel ways, as linguistic, visual, and statistical processing provide us with new modes of reading, representation, and understanding. This shift makes evident the necessity for humanities scholars to enter into a dialogue with librarians and computer scientists to understand the new language of open standards, search queries, visualization and social networks.
Digitizing “a million books” thus poses far more than just technical challenges. Tomorrow, a million scholars will have to re-evaluate their notions of archive, textuality and materiality in the wake of these developments. How will humanities scholars, librarians and computer scientists find ways to collaborate in the “Age of Google?”
Colloquium Website
November 5th & 6th, 2006
The University of Chicago
Ida Noyes Hall
1212 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
Keynote Speakers
Greg Crane (Professor of Classics, Tufts University) has been engaged since 1985 in planning and development of the Perseus Project, which he directs as the Editor-in-Chief. Besides supervising the Perseus Project as a whole, he has been primarily responsible for the development of the morphological analysis system which provides many of the links within the Perseus database.
Ben Shneiderman is Professor in the Department of Computer Science, founding Director (1983-2000) of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, and Member of the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and the Institute for Systems Research, all at the University of Maryland. He is a leading expert in human-computer interaction and information visualization and has published extensively in these and related fields.
John Unsworth is Dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Prior to that, he was on the faculty at the University of Virginia where he also led the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He has published widely in the field of Digital Humanities and was the recipient last year of the Lyman Award for scholarship in technology and humanities.
Program Committee
Prof. Helma Dik, Department of Classics, University of Chicago
Dr. Catherine Mardikes, Bibliographer for Classics, the Ancient Near East, and General Humanities, University of Chicago
Prof. Martin Mueller, Department of English and Classics, Northwestern University
Dr. Mark Olsen, Associate Director, The ARTFL Project, University of Chicago
Prof. Shlomo Argamon, Computer Science Department, Illinois Institute of Technology
Prof. Wai Gen Yee, Computer Science Department, Illinois Institute of Technology
Call for Participation
Participation in the colloquium is open to all. We welcome submissions for:
1. Paper presentations (20 minute maximum)
2. Poster sessions
3. Software demonstrations
Suggested submission topics
* Representing text genealogies and variance
* Automatic extraction and analysis of natural language style elements
* Visualization of large corpus search results
* The materiality of the digital text
* Interpreting symbols: textual exegesis and game playing
* Mashup: APIs for integrating discrete information resources
* Intelligent Documents
* Community based tagging / folksonomies
* Massively scalable text search and summaries
* Distributed editing & annotation tools
* Polyglot Machines: Computerized translation
* Seeing not reading: visual representations of literary texts
* Schemas for scholars: field and period specific ontologies for the humanities
* Context sensitive text search
* Towards a digital hermeneutics: data mining and pattern finding
Submission Format
Please submit a (2 page maximum) abstract in either PDF or MS Word format to
Important Dates
Deadline for Submissions: August 31st
Notification of Acceptance: September 15th
Full Program Announcement: September 15th
Contact Info
General Inquiries:
Organizational Committee
Mark Olsen,, Associate Director, ARTFL Project, University of Chicago.
Catherine Mardikes,, Bibliographer for Classics, the Ancient Near East, and General Humanities, University of Chicago.
Arno Bosse,, Director of Technology, Humanities Division, University of Chicago.
Shlomo Argamon,, Department of Computer Science, Illinois Institute of Technology.