Monday, April 23, 2018 - 13:30

“How I got here”: a personal journey from particle physics through literary studies to data engineering.

My title is a gesture in deference to the eponymous figure honoured by this lecture series, recasting in my own voice the title of his 2001 honoris causa degree speech (22 November 2001). I am not a linguist (and must resist more temptations), so I am somewhat uneasy presenting my experiences in this august linguistic context. However, I do feel some degree of creative license in claiming to share, in general pattern if not precise detail, Frederick Jelinek’s attraction to a diversity of interests, experiences and applications. I trust this will become clear as I sketch something of my own journey, in search of some measure of “lowercase” enlightenment through an attempt to reconstruct the global web of correspondence.


Letters represent one of humanity’s oldest needs: the communication of presence and sharing of information (or disinformation) at a distance. Letters — whether scratchings on clay, ink on paper, or addressed packets of digital data — letters stand as the original, global social network. From ancient history to the present, social networks have depended to some degree upon the drafting and transfer of human marks of intention upon some medium of transport.


My engagement with correspondence is longstanding: my mother and aunt wrote 300 personalized letters every Christmas as part of a year-long network of correspondences that stretched from the wilds of Western Canada across America, to Europe, Africa and Asia. So I had a nurtured and perhaps inherited appreciation for letters.


Decades later that fascination with correspondence intersected in an entirely unforeseen way with my interest in astrophysics and the sociology of texts. The result tuned my predisposition for scientific understanding of literary works into the creative application of science, mathematical methods and empirical evidence to the innovation, design, construction and maintenance of structures . . . materials . . . [and] processes” — to use a definition from Wikipedia. Tuned me and turned me into an engineer of data, endeavouring a reconstruction of the original global social network. Over the last year and a half I’ve also fulfilled a parallel, longstanding ambition by taking on responsibility for the Oxford Text Archive, a complementary project providing access to the publications of the authors and recipients of that global network.


This presentation will be part historical journey through the creation of a self-sustaining humanities project, part anatomy of obsession where a current count of some 80,000 letters is structured in over 50 related databases comprised of some 2,000 data-points per letter — all now augmented by a growing network of reciprocal links to over 60,000 available, full-text works. The final goal of this presentation will be to consider how we might collaborate in offering back to other scholars for new forms of scientific analysis and synthesis our engineering of text into data.