Discover has a good article this week about a couple of social scientists and their attempts to confirm Milgrim’s infamous ‘six degrees of separation’ experiment. Milgrim gave a number of people a letter and asked them to get it to a person they didn’t know directly though people they did know, then a person that person knew, etc. He found the chains averaged at 6 people, leading to the urban myth and the game ‘Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon’, in which people link up actors in a similar way (from personal experience, it almost always seems to go via Dan Ackroyd). Kevin Bacon even has a website called Six Degrees, linking celebrities and people with charitable organisations.
The scientists found that in both Milgrim and their follow-up studies, the six degrees often held up but people only completed their chain of connections a small amount of the time. They found that although often the six degree connection was about right when the link was completed, the likelihood of them reaching their target usually depended on the willingness or hostility of the people inbetween. For instance, for someone like Morgan Spurlock looking for Osama Bin Laden the last couple of chains are probably extremely resistant to taking part, so it’ll be hard to find him! I’d be interested to see if, as internet networks grow in popularity and sophistication, whether the number of degrees actually decreases in a hyper-connected future.
Discover also has a look at six physicists who could be considered ‘the next Einstein’. Personally I think Richard Feynman should hold that title and anyone now should be considered ‘the next Richard Feynman’ but the article is a nice brief overview of some leading lights in theoretical physics all the same.