Google Announces New Initiative to Track Study of Anoles

Well, more or less.  The New York Times, and many other newspapers, reported today (link 1) on a new project involving Google’s database of 5.2 million digitized books.  From this massive compendium of 500 billion words, it is possible to chart the use of words, and even combinations of words, through time.  Naturally, that immediately leads to the question of how usage of “anole” and “Anolis” has changed through time.  The results are presented in the graphs above.  The most obvious surprise is the peak in the mid-1950’s.  Why this should be, I don’t know, but my guess is that it has something to do with the actual books that have been digitized.   You can check this out for yourself by going to the Google Books website and rummaging around.  For example, here’s my search for “Anolis” in the 1950’s (link 2).  My guess based on this is that Google was only able to digitize many old journals, and perhaps those journals willing to be involved in projects like the Biodiversity Heritage Library, but that they do not have much of the recent scientific literature in their data base.   Compare, for example, the hits that come up for the 50’s versus those for the same search for the 1990’s (link 3).  Just a hunch, though—might make an interesting interdisciplinary undergraduate project.

The y-axis reveals that, shockingly, “anole” and “Anolis” are used in only a small minority of all books, surely something that will change in the future as knowledge of and interest in anoles continues to expand.  Note, too, that “anole” is used an order of magnitude more often than “Anolis,” not surprisingly given that most of these books are not scientific.  It is also possible to search for combinations of words, such as “anole” and “fabulous,” but we have not yet undertaken this exercise.

About Jonathan Losos

Author and Professor at Harvard University
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