Kevin Bacon Explains the World

kevin bacon

The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

You know. The idea that a chain of associations across a series of movies links any given actor to Kevin Bacon in no more than six steps.

Just some old college drinking game, right?

Guess again.

The Science Channel recently reported that scientists are on the verge of a major breakthrough in working out the underlying algorithms that determine the relationship between elements within complex systems.

If they're right, we may be on the brink of cracking the code of ... well, just about everything, and certainly just about anything that can be described by a network.

six degrees

Scientists believe that this new science could provide insights into everything from the internet, to anti-terrorism, to the spread of the flu viruses, to the very mysteries of synchronicity.

At the foundation of all this is the concept of the small-world network, the idea that universes with a large number of elements (e.g., the population of Earth) are organized into a vast series of clusters (e.g., your personal network of friends and family).

These cluster points, nodes or hubs, if you will, are the magic of networks. They allow for short pathways that dramatically facilitate the inter-connectivity of individual elements within any network.


But are we truly only six people away from connecting with virtually any one on a planet of nearly 7 billion people?

The work of Strogatz and Watts would suggest that we are.

Steve Strogatz, professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, and Duncan Watts, professor of Sociology at Columbia University, partnered to develop a mathematical model that graphs short pathway/high-cluster networks.

Strogatz and Watts -- and other Small-World scientists like them -- are doing work that may change the very nature of our understanding of connectivity.

Interestingly, the concept of the six-degrees concept is based, in large part, on the work of Stanley Milgram (yes , that Stanley Milgram).


The Kevin Bacon Experiment.
The math these scientists are involved with is way above our heads and maybe you feel the same way. But the Science Channel offered an experiment that we can all relate to.

The target was Marc Vidal, a a geneticist at Harvard University in Boston.

A letter was given to Nyaloka Auma and 39 other people scattered around the planet who had no idea who Marc Vidal was.

These 40 people were asked to send the letter to anyone they knew on a first name basis who might move it closer to the target by, in turn, passing the letter on to someone they knew on a first name basis, and so on, and so on...

Nyaloka's immediate challenge was that -- living in the remote village of Nyamware, Kenya -- she was having difficulty just getting the letter out of town. Until she remembered her aunt from Nairobi who had a friend in New York.

Nyaloka's letter eventually made it to Marc Vidal. The number of connecting steps? Six.

Nyaloka Auma

To be clear, only three of the 40 letters dispatched made it to Marc Vidal but it is more than interesting that the average number of connecting steps was...six.

Maybe It's a Small World After All...