In 1994 three frat guys in Reading PA were watching movies.
You can fill in any details around what else was going on yourself.
But they wondered why Kevin Bacon was everywhere and came up with a theory/game they called, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” They posited you could connect any actor to Kevin Bacon in 6 steps or less. 90s dorm room research at its finest.
An example: Elvis. Presley was in King Creole with Walter Matthau, and Matthau was in JFK with Bacon. So Elvis gets what they called – a “Bacon Number” of 2.
Because “publish findings in a scientific journal” is not where most dorm room theories go (especially pre-social media), our frat bros did the next smartest thing they could think of and alerted the authorities.
And by authorities we of course mean The Jon Stewart Show. In a letter (again, pre-social media!) they pleaded, “We are three men on a mission. Our mission is to prove to the Jon Stewart audience, nay, the world, that Bacon is God.”
Stewart had them on the show. Besides inspiring countless pre-smartphone googling of movie trivia debates, the appearance inspired two University of Virginia computer science majors to develop the idea further. Using a newly launched Internet Movie Database (aka IMDb), they launched a new website called The Oracle of Bacon. The dorm room theory was now officially proven.
Now there’s a deeper history which math readers are already screaming about… but it’s way less fun). Paul Erdos is not Kevin Bacon cool, we can all agree, so look that up if you’re curious. But Stanley Milgram was pretty neat and we should discuss him too (beyond the obedience to authority stuff at least).
Milgram’s big contribution, pre-dating the Bacon Number, was from an experiment where he mailed (and traced) 296 passports shipped off to random strangers around the country. His experiment was to see if these strangers could get the passport(s) back to the original owner. 64 of the passports made it back (!) with an average chain of connections measuring 5-6 people in length.
6 degrees of separation. Again. With another wrinkle.
Of the 64 letters that made it, about half came from the same three people. A solid quarter of them came from just one person. That’s a heck of a bottleneck.
Network theory is a peculiar thing. Any time we have a new idea, question, or a problem… Bacon numbers can be applied.
This is the point/reminder/lesson of this post: Do you have an idea but aren’t sure where to start? A place in your life or career you’d like to go? A wish you think you could fulfill if you just knew the right person? Ask a group of random people (better yet, start with friends). You are 6ish steps away, or less, from help.
See where it takes you. I’m not kidding. I do stuff like this all of the time. This is my reminder to do it even more often. And pay especially note to the bottlenecks.
The world feels more divisive than ever, but this mathematical formula hasn’t disappeared. The better you understand how networks are connected, the better you can understand how to navigate them.
If you want my favorite (and most gifted) book on this topic and more, get a much more nuanced version of this story by reading David Burkus’ Friend of a Friend.
Ps. More Burkus here too.