Erez Aiden

Director, Center of Genome Architecture at Rice University

Coauthor, Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture
Big Data 2.0

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Erez Aiden specialises in brilliant, unconventional analyses of big data. In 2012, his work received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honour given by the U.S. government to young scientists, for co-inventing the technology that created the first 3D map of the human genome.

But Erez is best known as one of the men behind the wildly popular Google Ngram Viewer, a free public tool that allows users to gain fascinating insights into the evolution of culture over time.

This fusion of science and the humanities is the focus of Erez’ book Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, co-written with his long-standing collaborator Jean-Baptiste Michel. The data set here was Google’s massive library of 15 million digitised books. The key insight was measuring the frequency of words over time. The result is why-didn’t-I-think-of-that simple but incredibly powerful, charting the rise and fall of everything from major technologies and celebrities to cultural values and even grammar. It’s a remarkable achievement that has created a brand new field of study — culturomics.

Erez holds a joint appointment at Rice University, where he directs the Center for Genome Architecture, and Baylor College of Medicine. He is the newest McNair Scholar at Baylor, an honour identifying him as one of today’s stars in biomedical research. Previously, Erez was a fellow at Harvard's Society of Fellows and a visiting faculty member at Google. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard and MIT in Applied Math and Health Sciences and Technology.

His research has won numerous awards including the Lemelson-MIT prize for best student inventor at MIT; membership in Technology Review's 2009 TR35, recognising the top 35 innovators under 35; and a National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award. Fast Company recently called Aiden “America's brightest young academic.”

His work with Jean-Baptiste Michel has been featured on the front page of Nature, Science, and The New York Times. Their talks have been viewed over a million times on the TED website.



Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture

Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel

“One of the most exciting developments from the world of ideas in decades, presented with panache by two frighteningly brilliant, endearingly unpretentious, and endlessly creative young scientists.”
— Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature

Our society has gone from writing snippets of information by hand to generating a vast flood of 1s and 0s that record almost every aspect of our lives: who we know, what we do, where we go, what we buy, and who we love. This year, the world will generate 5 zettabytes of data. (That’s a five with twenty-one zeros after it.) Big data is revolutionizing the sciences, transforming the humanities, and renegotiating the boundary between industry and the ivory tower.

What is emerging is a new way of understanding our world, our past, and possibly, our future. In Uncharted, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel tell the story of how they tapped into this sea of information to create a new kind of telescope: a tool that, instead of uncovering the motions of distant stars, charts trends in human history across the centuries. By teaming up with Google, they were able to analyze the text of millions of books. The result was a new field of research and a scientific tool, the Google Ngram Viewer, so groundbreaking that its public release made the front page of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe, and so addictive that Mother Jones called it “the greatest timewaster in the history of the internet.”

Using this scope, Aiden and Michel — and millions of users worldwide — are beginning to see answers to a dizzying array of once intractable questions. How quickly does technology spread? Do we talk less about God today? When did people start “having sex” instead of “making love”? At what age do the most famous people become famous? How fast does grammar change? Which writers had their works most effectively censored by the Nazis? When did the spelling “donut” start replacing the venerable “doughnut”? Can we predict the future of human history? Who is better known — Bill Clinton or the rutabaga?

All over the world, new scopes are popping up, using big data to quantify the human experience at the grandest scales possible. Yet dangers lurk in this ocean of 1s and 0s — threats to privacy and the specter of ubiquitous government surveillance. Aiden and Michel take readers on a voyage through these uncharted waters.

Riverhead Books (26 Dec 2013)


'Uncharted'The Boston Globe
Big Data Becomes a MirrorThe New York Times


“Aiden and Michel are big data pioneers, transforming how humanity thinks about itself. Uncharted is a magical, fun, fast and informative read. Every page brims with insight and humor.”
— Kenneth Cukier, co-author of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

“One of the most exciting developments from the world of ideas in decades, presented with panache by two frighteningly brilliant, endearingly unpretentious, and endlessly creative young scientists.”
— Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature

“[Aiden and Michel] offer fascinating insights… A fun, revealing exploration of a new way to view the past.”
Kirkus Reviews

“[Aiden and Michel] reveal a wealth of historical nuggets… [E]ven math-phobic readers may glean some fascinating sociological tidbits.”


Erez tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

Big Data




What we learn from 5 million books | TED

EurekaFest | MIT Tech TV

Lemelson Student Prize | MIT

Aiden begins at 34:40


A state university event:
Last week’s event came together smoothly. [We] enjoyed visiting with Erez, and the audience was very responsive to his presentation. It was a successful evening. The attendees I spoke with were impressed by his ability to explain such complex research.