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Taking a cue from the techniques of genomics, a team of researchers has devised a tool that delivers quantitative data on how culture changes over time. Genomics research analyzes huge amounts of data to study how genes function and change; the new tool takes a large-scale approach to study the frequency of word usage over time.

The approach makes sense if words are considered a unit of culture, says Erez Lieberman Aiden, one of the project's leaders. "The genome contains heritable information, passed from generation to generation," he says. "The words we use, in the books we write, are also passed from generation to generation."

Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, both at Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, led the project, which they've dubbed "culturomics"—a portmanteau combining "culture" and "genomics." The first fruit of their labors was a mammoth database of the words in about 5.2 million books published between 1800 and 2000—roughly four percent of all published books. These came from the Google Books project, whose library contains 15 million books.

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