Big Thinker Steven Skiena Ranks Historical Figures Using Computational Social Science

Jan 20, 2015

Steven Skiena Big Thinker We are thrilled to have kicked off our 2015 Big Thinkers Speakers Series last week with Dr. Steven Skiena, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Computer Science at Stony Brook University. Professor Skiena gave a provocative talk in which he explained how he and his colleagues use computational social science methods to rank historical figures. Professor Skiena's team developed a factor analysis-based ranking method which measures the relative significance of over 800,000 people described in Wikipedia. In case you're curious, Abraham Lincoln ranks higher than George Washington, Beethoven ranks higher than Elvis, and the most historically significant figure of all is Jesus. Dr. Steven Skiena at Yahoo for #BigThinkers The event was broadcast live on our homepage and viewers had the opportunity to ask questions and comment on our Twitter stream @YahooLabs as well as our Facebook page. If you are interested in seeing more rankings or learning about Dr. Skiena's fascinating methodology, you can view the full presentation here:

A discipline of computational social science is emerging, applying large-scale text/data analysis to central problems in the humanities and social sciences. Here we study the problem of algorithmically-constructing quantitative measures of historical reputation. Who is more historically significant: Beethoven or Elvis? Washington or Lincoln? Newton or Einstein?
By exploiting large-scale data from several sources, we have developed a factor analysis-based ranking method which measures the relative significance of over 800,000 people described in Wikipedia, in a rigorous way.  We have validated our measure through polls and analysis of published rankings of historical figures, demonstrating that our rankings are generally better than those of human experts. Our measure gives us the power to rigorously investigate several previously difficult-to-formalize questions, including:
  • Are the right people in the history books?
  • How well do Halls of Fame perform in identifying the most significant individuals?
  • Are men and women treated equally in Wikipedia?
Historical rankings is the subject of my recent book: "Who's Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank" Cambridge University Press, co-authored with Charles B. Ward.  Our rankings are available for inspection at
In this talk, I will discuss our methodology for ranking historical figures, with assessment results and applications. As time permits, I will also review recent projects in computational biology (synthetic gene optimization algorithms for vaccine design) and text analytics (Polyglot: multilingual entity analysis via distributed word embeddings).
Steven Skiena is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Computer Science at Stony Brook University.  His research interests include the design of graph, string, and geometric algorithms, and their applications (particularly to biology).  He is the author of five books, including "The Algorithm Design Manual" and "Calculated Bets: Computers, Gambling, and Mathematical Modeling to Win." He is co-founder and Chief Scientist at General Sentiment (, a media measurement company based on his Lydia text analysis system.
Skiena received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois in 1988, and is the author of over 130 technical papers. He is a former Fulbright scholar, and recipient of the ONR Young Investigator Award and the IEEE Computer Science and Engineer Teaching Award. More info at YAHOO LABS BIG THINKERS SPEAKER SERIES Yahoo Labs is proud to bring you its 2015 Big Thinkers Speaker Series. Each year, some of the most influential, accomplished experts from the research community visit our campus to share their insights on topics that are significant to Yahoo. These distinctive speakers are shaping the future of the new sciences underlying the Web and are guaranteed to inform, enlighten, and inspire.