by Lauren Tam
Let’s say you wanted to meet the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. Say you’re staying in a hotel and happen to know the doorman. The doorman knows the owner; the owner knows the owner of a more high-end hotel. A government official happens to frequent that hotel, and is friends with the owner. He can connect you with the Prime Minister. It all happened, with less than five people in between.
The Six Degrees of Separation theory states that anyone can meet anyone on Earth with a maximum of six or fewer mutual connections between them and another person. It could be through coworkers, friends, or members of their family. Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy initially suggested this theory in 1929.
The idea is based on the fact that the number of people known grows exponentially with the number of relationships in the chain. If we assume that everyone knows at least 44 people, each person you meet will know 44 more people and so on. Math shows that in 6 steps, everyone can be connected to 446, or 7.26 billion people.
Packages to Boston
This theory was not scientifically tested until the 1960s, when psychologists Stanley Milgram and Jeffrey Travers sent 300 packages to people in Nebraska and Boston. They asked participants to use their networks to get them back to a specific stockbroker living in Boston. They needed to send it to someone they knew on a first name basis. As a result, 64 packages were successful with an average path length of 5.2 intermediary connections. This experiment is used as evidence for six degrees of separation, or what the researchers called the “small world phenomenon”.
The concept was popularised by the John Guare play, Six Degrees of Separation, a film starring Will Smith, Stockard Channing, and Donald Sutherland. Then, in 1994, students in Pennsylvania invented the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. The challenge was to connect every film actor to Bacon in six cast lists or less. Bacon thought the joke would die out, but when it didn’t, he launched a website, sixdegrees.org. It strives to bring together people interested in helping create funds and support for local charities in the United States.
It’s a Small World After All
When they say it’s a small world, technically, they’re right! With the right effort and connections, you could meet Jennifer Aniston, a mountain sherpa, or your own stockholder in Boston. This proves how much math is integrated into our lives, even if it’s just to meet the right people.