Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

6 degrees of kevin baconSo! I am going to break pattern for this particular article. I have written two on “science stuff” and I felt that something new and refreshing was in order. I didn’t know about this particular matter until one of my professors happened to mention it in my quantum mechanics class. After a cursory reading, I thought that I could make something out of it. But before delving into “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”, an explanation of the origin of this so called parlour game should be elucidated. So here it goes.

We often, naively to some, say that the world is a small place when we suddenly encounter a friend or acquaintance who is, in turn, acquainted to someone we are very familiar with. This, serendipitous or eerie occurrence (whichever you fancy), might not be as far-fetched as we would like to think. The theory of “six degrees of separation” posits that a connection can be made between any two people in not more than six steps. The theory was first put forward by American social psychologist Stanley Milgram in his “small-world experiment” where he and other researchers studied the average path length for social networks in the United States. Their research, which was groundbreaking in its own right, suggested that human society is a small-world type network characterized by short path lengths. Milgram’s experiment came into existence because of his desire to know the probability of two randomly chosen people knowing each other.

Being a prolific actor himself, it might not be all that surprising that the six degrees of separation morphed into some sort of Hollywood trivia competition where film buffs try to find the shortest link between any arbitrary actor and Kevin Bacon. The idea of three college students, the game was created way back in 1994 when the trio began to ponder how many films Kevin Bacon played in and how many people he collaborated with. One of the trio Brian Turtle said “It became one of our stupid party tricks I guess. People would throw names at us and we’d connect them to Kevin Bacon.” And apparently their creation took off as the three of them appeared on tv shows to try to explain their game to the masses, often citing Bacon as “the centre of the entertainment universe”. A reference of six degrees of Kevin Bacon is even found in one of “Wierd Al” Yankovic’s songs called “Lame Claim to Fame” where one of the lines so lucidly state: “I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows Kevin Bacon”, which links to Kevin Bacon in six steps.  Kevin Bacon himself was initially displeased with this: he thought he was being ridiculed. But he did eventually come to accept and even like all the media hype that it generated.

To make things even more interesting, actors are often assigned a Bacon number, which is a measure of their proximity towards Bacon in terms of their movie roles. Bacon himself has a number 0. Actors who have worked directly with Bacon are assigned a number 1 and actors who have worked with those with number 1, but not Bacon himself, are assigned a number 2 and so on. Most importantly, it is said that no Hollywood actor can have a Bacon number of more that 6, which matches the result of the small-world experiment. This result might not be surprising for Hollywood, but for an entire country like that United States (or even the world as a matter of fact) the findings of Stanley Milgram are truly astonishing.

If one thinks of it this way, it is fun to be prolific at something. The Bacon number is not the only one of its kind though: the Einstein and  Erdős numbers predate it. I usually try to end my write-ups with a kind of ambivalent ending laced with some moral intonation but, as I wrote in the very first paragraph, this is something different. No morals! Although the small-world experiment was revolutionary, the six degrees of Kevin Bacon is something that a bunch of bored college kids conjured up. But hey! it’s fun no doubt. That’s what we love about it.