Degrees of separation

Forget Google Earth, Google Street View, and those proposed Google goggles.  Here is Google’s coolest feature:  Google will now calculate how many degrees of separation a person is from Kevin Bacon.

It is the party game beloved of cinephiles everywhere, one which rewards detailed knowledge of the career of one of the finest actors never to receive an Oscar nomination. And now it is even easier to play: Google has built Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon into its search system.

Devised in January 1994 by a trio of students at Pennsylvania’s Albright college, the original game was based on the idea that it is always possible to connect every movie actor in the world back to the Footloose star in no more than six associations. A website, board game and book later emerged and an initially reluctant Bacon eventually embraced the phenomenon by launching his own site, SixDegrees.org, to foster charitable donations.

To use Google’s system, the user simply types in the words “Bacon number” followed by the name of the actor. By way of example, typing “Bacon number Simon Pegg” reveals that Bacon and the British actor are linked by Tom Cruise, because the latter appeared in 1992′s A Few Good Men with Bacon and in 2006′s Mission: Impossible III with Pegg. Pegg therefore has a Bacon number of two, indicating two degrees of separation.

Lead engineer Yossi Matias said the project was about showcasing the power of Google’s search engine by flagging up the deep-rooted connections between people in the film industry. “If you think about search in the traditional sense, for years it has been to try and match, find pages and sources where you would find the text,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s interesting that this small-world phenomena when applied to the world of actors actually shows that in most cases, most actors aren’t that far apart from each other. And most of them have a relatively small Bacon number.”

By way of example, type French Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard’s name into the system and it is revealed that she has a Bacon number of two, while Humphrey Bogart, who died in 1957, nevertheless has a Bacon number of just three.

via Google builds Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon into its search system | Film | guardian.co.uk.

The Google algorithm (someone please explain how it works)  just works for Hollywood figures, which is the original game, though one variation tries to connect anyone on earth to Mr. Bacon.  I, for example, have a Bacon number of four:  (1) The wife of a former colleague is the daughter of the man who did the make-up on Citizen Kane.  (2)  He worked for Orson Welles, who produced, directed, and acted in Citizen Kane.  (3)  Google tells me that Orson Welles appeared with Jack Nicholson in A Safe Place.  (4)  And that Jack Nicholson and Kevin Bacon appeared in A Few Good Men.

Another variation proposes that there are no more than six degrees of separation (or maybe a few more) between any two people in the world.  For example, what chain of people who have met or have had a direct personal contact with each other might connect me to, say, a hypothetical Chinese peasant named Chen who lives in the Jiangxi province?  (1) When I was in high school, I shook the hand of Senator Eugene McCarthy.  (2)  He shook the hand of Richard Nixon.  (3)  Nixon shook the hand of Mao Zedong.  (4)  Chairman Mao knew the members of his Communist Politburo.  (5)  The representative of the Jiangxi province worked with the Secret Police.  (6) One of whose members doubtless spied on Chen and his parents.

I don’t know if that always works, of course.  I suppose it’s based on the exponential calculations that perhaps someone could explain for us.  (Is it that if each person has met a thousand people, six degrees would mean 1000 to the 6th power, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, a number that would require a great deal of overlap since the world’s population is only about 7,000,000,000.)

I think it shouldn’t count if your only contact with a person is reading a book or article that was written by that person.  But if you comment on the person’s blog, that does count, like talking to someone over the phone.  So you can add onto my degrees of separation with Kevin Bacon.

Do any of you have any other interesting degrees of separation that the rest of us could then appropriate?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    In the scientific community there is the Erdos number which uses the same method using the prolific Paul Erdos as the universal hub. So co-authorship and collaboration increase the probability of a low score which diminishes over time as people with low numbers die off. Six degrees does play out over time.

    I would expect though that many directors have low Bacon numbers and the more films, the more people with low numbers. There probably lots of people with low Spielberg numbers for example.

  • SKPeterson

    In the scientific community there is the Erdos number which uses the same method using the prolific Paul Erdos as the universal hub. So co-authorship and collaboration increase the probability of a low score which diminishes over time as people with low numbers die off. Six degrees does play out over time.

    I would expect though that many directors have low Bacon numbers and the more films, the more people with low numbers. There probably lots of people with low Spielberg numbers for example.

  • Kathy

    I grew up in a small town in Kentucky named after the palace at Versailles, but pronounced “ver-sails.” Everyone knows my mother as “Cookie” and she worked at the local bank. My mother knows William Farish, a bank customer, who also owns a horse farm outside of town. Mr. Farish was the ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Queen Elizabeth has often visited his farm.

    You’re at the Queen in 4 steps and should now be able to get to many famous people from the past 50 years. Don’t know if that will get you to Kevin Bacon.

  • Kathy

    I grew up in a small town in Kentucky named after the palace at Versailles, but pronounced “ver-sails.” Everyone knows my mother as “Cookie” and she worked at the local bank. My mother knows William Farish, a bank customer, who also owns a horse farm outside of town. Mr. Farish was the ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Queen Elizabeth has often visited his farm.

    You’re at the Queen in 4 steps and should now be able to get to many famous people from the past 50 years. Don’t know if that will get you to Kevin Bacon.

  • Michael B.

    I would love to see this work for non-Hollywood figures. For example, I’d wonder how many people are between me and Gene? Facebook could do this if it wanted. I’ve already seen it with 2 or 3 degrees of separation several times. Just recently I had a co-worker in my office who was the roommate (in a city over 1000 miles away) of my best man’s brother.

  • Michael B.

    I would love to see this work for non-Hollywood figures. For example, I’d wonder how many people are between me and Gene? Facebook could do this if it wanted. I’ve already seen it with 2 or 3 degrees of separation several times. Just recently I had a co-worker in my office who was the roommate (in a city over 1000 miles away) of my best man’s brother.

  • Sharon Philp

    The degrees of separation in the Missouri Synod are small. I’d be interested to see the number there–it has to be lower than the six degrees elsewhere. So the story goes, a man (now deceased) from my home church in a tiny town in a part of California that few know exists was so widely known in the LCMS, that his son living in England would often be asked if he was related once they heard the name. I taught with a cousin of this man in Missouri.
    Which leads to this question– how does an overlap get calculated? There is one degree between me and this man, there is one degree between me and his cousin– how does that figure in?
    Also, what defines a degree? Does one have to know them personally, or can a mere encounter be enough? I was three rows away from Ben Vereen once. Is that enough, or would I have had to have him physically bump into me on the sidewalk, as the connection between Michael Moore and my mother-in-law?

  • Sharon Philp

    The degrees of separation in the Missouri Synod are small. I’d be interested to see the number there–it has to be lower than the six degrees elsewhere. So the story goes, a man (now deceased) from my home church in a tiny town in a part of California that few know exists was so widely known in the LCMS, that his son living in England would often be asked if he was related once they heard the name. I taught with a cousin of this man in Missouri.
    Which leads to this question– how does an overlap get calculated? There is one degree between me and this man, there is one degree between me and his cousin– how does that figure in?
    Also, what defines a degree? Does one have to know them personally, or can a mere encounter be enough? I was three rows away from Ben Vereen once. Is that enough, or would I have had to have him physically bump into me on the sidewalk, as the connection between Michael Moore and my mother-in-law?

  • Tom Hering

    I checked the degrees of separation for four of my favorite actresses/comediennes. Doris Day = 2. Not too surprising, as she’s still alive. Ginger Rogers = 2 isn’t too surprising either, as she died in 1995. But Jayne Mansfield and Judy Holliday both = 2? Their last film roles were in 1967 and 1960, respectively. But then, their last roles were separated from Bacon’s first movie, Animal House (1978), by not much more than a decade or two. So it really shouldn’t surprise me that they all worked with (were connected by) someone who had a film career in both ’60/67 and ’78.

    Huh. I’ve learned nothing from this exercise. :-D

  • Tom Hering

    I checked the degrees of separation for four of my favorite actresses/comediennes. Doris Day = 2. Not too surprising, as she’s still alive. Ginger Rogers = 2 isn’t too surprising either, as she died in 1995. But Jayne Mansfield and Judy Holliday both = 2? Their last film roles were in 1967 and 1960, respectively. But then, their last roles were separated from Bacon’s first movie, Animal House (1978), by not much more than a decade or two. So it really shouldn’t surprise me that they all worked with (were connected by) someone who had a film career in both ’60/67 and ’78.

    Huh. I’ve learned nothing from this exercise. :-D

  • SKPeterson

    I’ve learned you’re very, very old Tom. That’s gotta be worth something.

  • SKPeterson

    I’ve learned you’re very, very old Tom. That’s gotta be worth something.

  • Tom Hering

    I’m not old. I never mentioned Mabel Normand = 3.

  • Tom Hering

    I’m not old. I never mentioned Mabel Normand = 3.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    SKP, then, for the coolest number around, there is the Bacon-Erdos number, which is the sum of the degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, and Paul Erdos – but this has to be via acting and formal academic work. The lowest Erdos-Bacon number is that of the mathematician, Dave Bayer, who played a minor role in A Beautiful mind.

    For more famous people, Richard Feynman had a Bacon-Erdos number of 6, and so has actress Natalie Portman – having co-authored an academic paper under her birth name, Natalie Herschlag.

    And, for enthusiasts like me, Bib Bang actress and Neurobiology PhD Miriam Bialik has a Bacon-Erdos number of 7.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    SKP, then, for the coolest number around, there is the Bacon-Erdos number, which is the sum of the degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, and Paul Erdos – but this has to be via acting and formal academic work. The lowest Erdos-Bacon number is that of the mathematician, Dave Bayer, who played a minor role in A Beautiful mind.

    For more famous people, Richard Feynman had a Bacon-Erdos number of 6, and so has actress Natalie Portman – having co-authored an academic paper under her birth name, Natalie Herschlag.

    And, for enthusiasts like me, Bib Bang actress and Neurobiology PhD Miriam Bialik has a Bacon-Erdos number of 7.

  • http://strangeherring.com Anthony Sacramone

    I am four degrees of separation from President Obama: I worked for Sylvester Stallone, who worked with Robert DeNiro (Copland), who worked with Al Pacino (Godfather II, Heat), who received a medal from Obama. (This makes me only three degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, as DeNiro worked with Bacon on Sleepers.)

    I take that back! I’m three degrees of separation from the president! I used to edit Pete Wehner’s blog posts at Commentarymagazine.com. Pete used to work for George W. Bush, who left a whoopee cushion for President Obama in the Oval Office.

  • http://strangeherring.com Anthony Sacramone

    I am four degrees of separation from President Obama: I worked for Sylvester Stallone, who worked with Robert DeNiro (Copland), who worked with Al Pacino (Godfather II, Heat), who received a medal from Obama. (This makes me only three degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, as DeNiro worked with Bacon on Sleepers.)

    I take that back! I’m three degrees of separation from the president! I used to edit Pete Wehner’s blog posts at Commentarymagazine.com. Pete used to work for George W. Bush, who left a whoopee cushion for President Obama in the Oval Office.

  • Aubrey

    I am 3 degrees away from President Obama, also. When my (now ex) husband was stationed at the Pentagon, I met former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, who served under George W. Bush, who is obviously just one degree from President Obama.

  • Aubrey

    I am 3 degrees away from President Obama, also. When my (now ex) husband was stationed at the Pentagon, I met former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, who served under George W. Bush, who is obviously just one degree from President Obama.

  • SKPeterson

    The question then becomes what level of association does one need to have to be connected with someone. What are the criteria. For the Erdos number it is publication co-authorships. So if I write a paper with someone, I have some sort of association with their co-authors, and so on.

    Here’s a really good combo: the Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number.
    http://www.rosschurchley.com/who-else-has-an-erdos-bacon-sabbath-number/

  • SKPeterson

    The question then becomes what level of association does one need to have to be connected with someone. What are the criteria. For the Erdos number it is publication co-authorships. So if I write a paper with someone, I have some sort of association with their co-authors, and so on.

    Here’s a really good combo: the Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number.
    http://www.rosschurchley.com/who-else-has-an-erdos-bacon-sabbath-number/

  • SKPeterson

    The upshot being – if you do work that involves lots of collaboration with other people who do lots of collaborations, and have hobbies that involve collaborating with people who also collaborate with people because of their hobbies you get Google.

  • SKPeterson

    The upshot being – if you do work that involves lots of collaboration with other people who do lots of collaborations, and have hobbies that involve collaborating with people who also collaborate with people because of their hobbies you get Google.

  • Mary

    My cousin directs commercials, and recently movies in Hollywood. He has met Kevin Bacon, but I don’t think has worked with him, I need to check on that. So do I have one, or two degrees of separation?

  • Mary

    My cousin directs commercials, and recently movies in Hollywood. He has met Kevin Bacon, but I don’t think has worked with him, I need to check on that. So do I have one, or two degrees of separation?

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I think that degrees of separation between people is an interesting exercise in graph theory for mathematicians and computer scientists, but I don’t see much ultimate importance in such things applied to casual relationships between people.

    My sister has a friend whose cousin knows somebody that once met a store owner who sold something to…. (yawn.)

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I think that degrees of separation between people is an interesting exercise in graph theory for mathematicians and computer scientists, but I don’t see much ultimate importance in such things applied to casual relationships between people.

    My sister has a friend whose cousin knows somebody that once met a store owner who sold something to…. (yawn.)

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Two, Mary. We are playing the expanded version. Any contact whatsoever counts. (The Deluxe versions goes by movie connections or published scientific articles.)

    In thinking about this, I was wondering how many people that amounts to. In my teaching career, adding it all up together, I have had at least three thousand students pass through my classes–not counting those who didn’t pass–and I’ve graded their papers and known them personally at some level. Then add colleagues, professional contacts, relatives, people at the churches I’ve attended, friends, acquaintances, correspondents, internet comrades, people I’ve met at conferences, and the number gets staggering.

    Of course, we don’t know all of our connections and the connections they lead to, but there is a lesson in life here: We are all connected to each other.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Two, Mary. We are playing the expanded version. Any contact whatsoever counts. (The Deluxe versions goes by movie connections or published scientific articles.)

    In thinking about this, I was wondering how many people that amounts to. In my teaching career, adding it all up together, I have had at least three thousand students pass through my classes–not counting those who didn’t pass–and I’ve graded their papers and known them personally at some level. Then add colleagues, professional contacts, relatives, people at the churches I’ve attended, friends, acquaintances, correspondents, internet comrades, people I’ve met at conferences, and the number gets staggering.

    Of course, we don’t know all of our connections and the connections they lead to, but there is a lesson in life here: We are all connected to each other.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I had a collateral ancestor who knew Abraham Lincoln. But I’m too lazy to work out the numbers. And I have an e-mail friend who knew George W. Bush years back.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I had a collateral ancestor who knew Abraham Lincoln. But I’m too lazy to work out the numbers. And I have an e-mail friend who knew George W. Bush years back.

  • mikeb

    I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate. What’s that make us? Absolutely nothing!

  • mikeb

    I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate. What’s that make us? Absolutely nothing!

  • Abby

    My husband’s cousin was named Immigration Secretary under George W Bush. But I don’t understand how to count the “degrees.” :)

  • Abby

    My husband’s cousin was named Immigration Secretary under George W Bush. But I don’t understand how to count the “degrees.” :)

  • Sharon Philp

    Yes! I have a Bacon number of 3. I did some community theater in high school, and the director was married to Ralph J. Rose who had done some television work. He was also in some of the productions and never quite memorized his lines, so he would often ad-lib–drove his wife crazy. Anyway, he has a Bacon number of two. It also means I have an Andy Griffith number of two, as Ralph was on at least one episode of The Andy Griffith Show.

  • Sharon Philp

    Yes! I have a Bacon number of 3. I did some community theater in high school, and the director was married to Ralph J. Rose who had done some television work. He was also in some of the productions and never quite memorized his lines, so he would often ad-lib–drove his wife crazy. Anyway, he has a Bacon number of two. It also means I have an Andy Griffith number of two, as Ralph was on at least one episode of The Andy Griffith Show.

  • Orianna Laun

    The Oracle of Bacon (oracleofbacon.org) allows one to plug in any two names to find the separation. I believe it uses the Internet Movie Database, so any name that is listed at imdb.com should work at The Oracle of Bacon.

  • Orianna Laun

    The Oracle of Bacon (oracleofbacon.org) allows one to plug in any two names to find the separation. I believe it uses the Internet Movie Database, so any name that is listed at imdb.com should work at The Oracle of Bacon.

  • Abby

    @18 Not Immigration Secretary — he was appointed Energy Secretary.

  • Abby

    @18 Not Immigration Secretary — he was appointed Energy Secretary.

  • EGK

    A friend of mine (you know him, too, Dr. Veith), an LCMS pastor, is a bluegrass buddy of Matt Harrison, and has also gotten to know T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, etc. Since Burnett has become a widely-respected music producer, that puts us at two degrees from Bob Dylan and numerous others (think anyone associated with O Brother, Where Art Thou) and three degrees at most from virtually every rock and roll and bluegrass icon out there, not to mention anyone ever associated with George Clooney.

  • EGK

    A friend of mine (you know him, too, Dr. Veith), an LCMS pastor, is a bluegrass buddy of Matt Harrison, and has also gotten to know T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, etc. Since Burnett has become a widely-respected music producer, that puts us at two degrees from Bob Dylan and numerous others (think anyone associated with O Brother, Where Art Thou) and three degrees at most from virtually every rock and roll and bluegrass icon out there, not to mention anyone ever associated with George Clooney.

  • Dan Kempin

    I am two degrees from Ernest Hemingway, knowing a person who met him personally, and three degrees from President Lincoln, being friends with a person whose great uncle encountered him personally in the 1940s.*

    *Yes, really, though obviously some further explanation would be required.

  • Dan Kempin

    I am two degrees from Ernest Hemingway, knowing a person who met him personally, and three degrees from President Lincoln, being friends with a person whose great uncle encountered him personally in the 1940s.*

    *Yes, really, though obviously some further explanation would be required.


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