Meet The Mathematician Who Inspired The Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon Game

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08.05.14 14 Comments

Remember the Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon game? It’s probably not as challenging in the age of IMDB, but when it started in 1994 it was all the rage – using your vast knowledge of pop culture (something that was still sort of new and hip in the early 90s) to see how many connections it took to connect anyone to Kevin Bacon. But as Erdős-Bacon, this new Kickstarter documentary project points out, mathematicians had already been playing the game for years, only with the Kevin Bacon of math, Paul Erdős.

The Erdős Number placed the eccentric and brilliant mathematician Paul Erdős – a prolific academic who has collaborated and published more papers than anybody – at the center of the universe. Those who published a paper with Erdős received an Erdős Number of 1. Those who published a paper with somebody who published a paper with Erdős receive an Erdős Number of 2, and so on.

And it turns out the silly bar game is actually based on a fairly important principle of math:

The Small World Phenomenon predicts that we are less than six handshakes from anyone in the world. By examining this peculiarity, this documentary will track down Kevin Bacon and colleagues of Paul Erdős in order to explore connectivity.

From social networks, power grids, financial systems, to the connections in your brain, the mathematics discussed in the film can provide insight into its diverse importance in the world. In short, there’s more to math than meets the eye. But let’s start the conversation in an enjoyable way – with two remarkable icons: Kevin Bacon and Paul Erdős.

I believe I was first introduced to this phenomenon through that old STD awareness commercial on MTV. Just replace handshakes with touching genitals and add “in bed” at the end.

Oh, also, you can combine Erdős-Bacon into one for an “Erdős-Bacon Number.”

Our world is not simply a single network, but rather a multitude of networks joined to other networks. Because of this, it’s no surprise that the Erdős Number and Bacon Number have culturally collided to form The Erdős-Bacon Number. Only a lucky few have obtained such prestige – as being both a published academic and an IMDB credited actor. Among them, Natalie Portman, Danica McKellar, Carl Sagan, and the best thus far: Barnard Professor Dave Bayer with an Erdős-Bacon number of 3. [Kickstarter]

That’s a club even more exclusive than the EGOT. They should make rings. For the record, McKellar has an Erdős-Bacon number of 6, while Natalie Portman has one of 7. Also, they left off Colin Firth:

British actor Colin Firth has an Erdős–Bacon number of 7. Firth is formally credited as co-author of a neuroscience paper, “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults”, after he suggested on BBC Radio 4 that such a study could be done. Another author of that paper, Geraint Rees, has an Erdős number of 5, which gives Firth an Erdős number of 6. Firth appeared with Kevin Bacon in Where the Truth Lies, so his Bacon number is 1. [Wiki]

Oh come on, you can just say “someone should do this study” and get co-authorship credit? That doesn’t seem fair.

Anyway, the Erdős–Bacon Kickstarter has 15 days left, and you should probably fund it, or else we might have to try to do all this math ourselves and I can’t even calculate a tip so that’s probably a bad idea.

(by the way, does anyone remember that MTV PSA I’m talking about? I think it was kind of like this one, but I remember it being older and there being a series of split screens dividing into more split screens.)


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Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator.

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