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Crunching Numbers… and Literature

Crunching Numbers… and LiteratureNew doors open for the Perseus Digital Library Project as its coordinators prepare to gain access to high-performance supercomputers.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.09.09] For the past 20 years, Classics Professor Gregory Crane and fellow coordinators on the Perseus Digital Library Project have made significant headway into the Greek and Latin literature of antiquity. Now, thanks to a recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the group has the opportunity to take its efforts even further with help from an unlikely source-supercomputers.

"We can now start to ask questions that would simply not be feasible with traditional collections or tools," says Crane, the founder of the project. "For example, what would you do if you wanted to trace the influence of Plato over 2,000 years, not only in every European language, but also in Arabic and Persian?"

This would only be feasible with the use of high-performance computers able to apply a range of both simple and complex algorithms to the data, according to Crane. He notes that "no human being could read [every source on] Plato, but given the tools we have for searching, we can now start to design an environment where you could ask who is talking about Plato and summarize what they say across 10 different languages."

This spring the Humanities High Performance Computing Program, an offshoot of a recent partnership between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the NEH, will send Crane and senior researcher David Bamman to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where they will have access to such a supercomputer.

The Perseus project is a database that extracts information from thousands of Greek and Latin books in addition to cataloguing a number of archeological finds. According to Crane, the use of this technology is good timing for the project, because researchers plan to branch out beyond Greek and Latin works and start providing the same services for Arabic texts, using a $500,000 grant from the Department of Education and collaborating with Valerie Anishchenkova, the Arabic language coordinator at Tufts.

"This is important because Arabic is one of the great languages for Greek scholarship-Islamic scholars were critically important scholars of Greek," Crane says. "A number of Greek philosophical works exist only in Arabic translations."

Crane credits his team's success to the support they received from the university over the years.

"We had anticipated this development in the field, we were ahead of the curve, and I was able to help lead this group because of the support that I have received from Tufts and the nature of Tufts as an entrepreneurial institution," says Crane. "This is all thanks to Tufts' forward thinking which let us do this project 15 years ago before we really knew it was going to pan out."

In turn, the university-and other institution of higher education-will also benefit, because the project will allow undergraduate scholars to make significant contributions in the humanities field early in their careers.

"For the first time in my lifetime it is possible for undergraduates to imagine pursuing significant individual research projects that can then be published and become part of our knowledge of the ancient world," Crane says. "When I was an undergraduate, the thought was that anything I would do as a senior thesis wasn't really a contribution, and now students are able to start taking what they may have done as a class exercise and having them be made available to anyone in the world."

According to Crane, "This will rewrite what undergraduate and graduate education can be like."

By Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

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