Books, Miscellaneous

A Cold Winter in Poland

Have you ever wanted to count every sentence in War and Peace and plot them on a horizontal axis of a graph, and then count every word in those sentences and plot them on the vertical axis of the graph? What is wrong with you? Some very kind nuclear physicists in Cracow, Poland, have spared us this necessary task. And not just War and Peace, because they have completed it for Ulysses, The Ambassadors, Moby Dick and a further 109 literary classics, written in English, Italian, French, German, Polish and Russian.

Their paper Quantifying origin and character of long-range correlation in narrative texts was published this week in a journal called Information Sciences. The results are in, so, without further ado, and in order to put you out of your misery, I can reveal that across all the texts analysed:

The correlations in variations of sentence length were governed by the dynamics of a cascade. In mathematical terms their constructions were fractal (that is they exhibited a repeating pattern that when expanded resembled the structure of the whole). Some of the sentence length variables of the texts excitingly indicated that their constructions were fractals of fractals (that is multi- fractal).

Several of the texts identified as, in this way, multi-fractal I have read: Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Woolf’s The Waves, God’s The Old Testament, Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I can detect no narrative or thematic or structural correlation between them at all. But then I’m not a scientist myself.

Professor Droždž, of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Poland, is quoted as saying that one day, by this method, we may be able to, simply by studying sentence length variability, identify which genre a narrative text falls into. Although I cannot help thinking that instead of counting all the words in thirty five thousand sentences of War and Peace a little time spent simply reading the wretched book might pay dividends as well. But then I’m rather old fashioned about these things. Dr Pavel Oswiecimka added, on rather a down beat note, “fractality of a literary text will in practice never be as perfect as in the world of mathematics.” Have Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan been told?

Many scientists, in my experience, show an eager tendency to excessively interpret patterns they have manufactured. In this way they resemble conspiracy theorists, and Calvinists. Haven’t these physicists got a superconducting magnet, or something, they can get on with thrusting through a particle proton collider instead?


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