Big Data, Did We Invent the Wheel?

While the term “big data” is relatively new, the act of gathering and storing large amounts of information for eventual analysis is ages old. The concept gained momentum in the early 2000s when industry analyst Doug Laney articulated the now-mainstream definition of big data as the three Vs:

Volume: Organizations collect data from a variety of sources, including business transactions, social media and information from sensor or machine-to-machine data.

Velocity: Data streams in at an unprecedented speed and must be dealt with in a timely manner.

Variety: Data comes in all types of formats – from structured, numeric data in traditional databases to unstructured text documents, email, video, audio, stock ticker data and financial transactions.

But is it all started yesterday as we like to flatter ourselves? Before I address my personal answer, I begin with one Big Data discovery from much earlier times.

On October 6, 1348, the college of the faculty of medicine at the University of Paris issued a compendium of opinion on the Black Death, apparently in response to a request from the king of France, Philip VI. In addition to relying on their own knowledge and ancient authorities like Aristotle, the faculty consulted “very many knowledgeable men in modern astrology and medicine concerning the causes of the epidemic which has been abroad since 1345.” Their pronouncement, therefore, contained what was considered the most up-to-date scientific information available at the time and quickly became authoritative, as evidenced by its repetition in other plague treatises.

Concerning the Universal and Distant Cause: Therefore we say that the distant and first cause of this pestilence was and is a certain configuration in the heavens. In the year of our Lord 1345, at precisely one hour past noon on the twentieth day of the month of March, there was a major conjunction [lining-up] of three higher planets in Aquarius. Indeed, this conjunction, together with other prior conjunctions and eclipses, being the present cause of the ruinous corruption of the air that is all around us, is a harbinger of mortality and famine and many other things besides…Moreover, that this is so is testified by the philosopher, Aristotle, in his book, Concerning the Causes of the Properties of the Elements. …And Albertus [Magnus] says in his book, Concerning the Causes of the Properties of the Elements (treatise 2, chapter 1), that a conjunction of two planets, namely Mars and Jupiter, brings about a great pestilence in the air, and that this happens especially under a hot and humid sign [i.e., Aquarius], as was the case when the planets lined up [in 1345]. For at that time, Jupiter, being hot and wet, drew up evil vapors from the earth, but Mars, since it is immoderately hot and dry, then ignited the risen vapors, and therefore there were many lightning flashes, sparks, and pestiferous vapors and fires throughout the atmosphere…

For me, this an example of Big Data because the investigations had the entire heavens and an unspecified and virtually unlimited time window within which to search for and discover a cause. They were not limited to planets, or to these three planets; any two objects of the same genere would do, and any three would be better, and in any of the 12 signs of the zodiac.

Whenever we thought we invented the wheel we better check if there was anything people(scientists) were doing „BC“ ( before computers).

  1. John Aberth, The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents (Boston, MA : Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005), 41-45.
  2. Ann G Carmichael, Universal and Particular: The Language of Plague, 1348–1500
  3. What Is Big Data?