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How to Quantify the Shakespeare Debate

Widely considered to be the work of the greatest wordsmith and dramatist of all time, Shakespeare's plays have been translated into every major language and performed more than any other playwright's. Yet, aside from the body of work—some three dozen plays and 150-plus poems attributed to the Bard of Avon—historical records provide only spotty details of the personal and professional life of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, engendering skepticism that he could have been responsible for the oeuvre.

The authorship question has percolated since the mid-1700s with different camps amassing evidence for their views but no clear resolution of the debate. Enter Peter Sturrock.

An emeritus professor of applied physics, Sturrock, 88, has had an illustrious career, publishing more than 200 scientific articles and editing five volumes that review plasma physics, solar physics and astrophysics. Along the way, he developed a side interest in bringing scientific rigor to questions that tend to be shunned by the mainstream—such as whether there is any evidence in 30 years of UFO reports to substantiate visitation by extraterrestrials.

In his latest book, AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question, Sturrock lays out a method of weighing evidence (based on a process he devised while studying pulsars) that factors in other available information. As readers work their way through the book they encounter facts presented by four fictionalized characters representing various perspectives in the debate. Sturrock doesn't draw any conclusions. Instead, he invites readers to weigh in, tabulating their "degree of belief" in each of three candidates—Shakespeare, Edward de Vere or a third unknown author—and entering their responses in an online tool, cheekily dubbed Prospero.

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