by James Bailey |

Computer studies of Jane Austen's writings show that, in contrast with those of other authors, she focuses, more than they, on affairs domestic. No wars, no murders, no great affairs of state. That is arguably one of the reasons our brains resonate with her words.

Kathleen Flynn, however, is frustrated by this revelation. She edits the New York Times’ "Upshot" section and "The Upshot's mission is to make journalism more rigorous [and] to bridge the gap of words and numbers.”

In this case researchers had used a mainstay of machine learning—principal component analysis—to show how a range of novels cluster or differ based on their corpus of words. "This time I saw a pattern that had eluded me, a connecting thread: how the peculiar brilliance of Austen lies partly in what she focuses on, and what she ignores.”

Flynn has been taught to believe that the path from the literary canon to the pattern that had eluded her requires the ponderous detour into numbers and statistical formulae. Not so. Advanced machine learning algorithms go straight from data to pattern. This reality drives statistics mavens nuts. They sweated blood memorizing hundreds of abstruse symbols and formulae in statistics classes, chasing that false god of "rigor" that Upshot authors wear as a badge of pride. They had to do it, and, dammit, so should the next generation of students. (Hint: Algebra is the Latin of the 21st century.)

In his book After Thought, James Bailey traces the evolution of mathematical goals from place to pace to pattern. The ancient Greeks, desperate to know their place in the kosmos, invented geometry to figure it out. All the way up into the Renaissance, astronomy was the only science there was. We still speak of "lengths of time" rather than amounts of time.

But not everything moves at a constant pace, as Kepler finally acknowledged. The Western world shifted from constant astronomy to accelerated physics and hence from geometry to algebra and calculus. The one thing that remained the same was the computing resource: individual scientists computing with their bare hands.

Given that puny computing resource, the sciences of life, which create vast clouds of data, had no chance back then. Now we have computers equal to the task, and what we want to know about life is its patterns. To find those patterns, we now use deep learning algorithms like neural networks. What they tell us, as Ms. Flynn notes, is not just what Jane cared about, but what she didn't. Numbers and equations cannot do that.

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