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Monday, February 2, 2015


Most of you are familiar with the notion of "degrees of separation," made popular by a play and then by a parlor game called "six degrees of Kevin Bacon."  The idea is to see how many links of personal acquaintance are required to connect two seemingly distant people.  For example, I am connected by no more than three degrees of separation to George Clooney, a fact of which I was reminded yesterday while watching a bit of the quirky movie Up In The Air.  Clooney's co-star in that movie is a young actress named Vera Farmiga, who starred in a film made from a memoir written by the mother of one of my all-time favorite students, Jennifer Jensen-Wallach.  Since Jennifer's mother visited the set and met Farmiga, that means that I am linked to Clooney by the series of connections Me-Jennifer-Jennifer's mother-Farmiga-Clooney, which is three degrees of separation.

I am also linked to Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and every other major world leader by one degree of separation, since I, like thousands of others, once shook Barack Obama's hand.  Indeed, since my son, Tobias, served as the Chair of Obama's LGBT Advisory Committee in the 2008 election campaign, I am linked by only two degrees of separation of personal acquaintance to all those big wigs.  I am also linked by one degree of separation to every important figure in South Africa's political life of the last thirty years, inasmuch as I once spent an hour one-on-one with Desmond Tutu [a fact of which I am inordinately proud] and Tutu of course has known every important person in South Africa and thousands upon thousands of others not considered to be important by the world, but considered important by him.

It is perhaps a good deal more surprising that I am linked by two degrees of separation to Jeremy Bentham!  I am not talking about philosophical influences or anything hokey like that, but real honest-to-God personal acquaintance.  How on earth is that possible, inasmuch as Bentham died in  1832?  Well, in 1954, I had tea with Bertrand Russell in his modest home outside London.  Russell's godfather was John Stuart Mill [who died when Bertie was one, so I am stretching it a little, but still], and Mill's godfather was none other than Jeremy Bentham [a fact that is not at all surprising, inasmuch as Bentham and James Mill were political allies.]  So:  Me -- Russell -- Mill -- Bentham.  I spent a little time this morning trying without success to find evidence that Bentham knew David Hume.  It would have been possible -- Bentham was twenty-eight when Hume died -- but E. C. Mossner's magisterial biography of Hume does not list Bentham in the index, and I take that as definitive.  Along the way, I did discover something that I either never knew or had forgotten, namely that my second-hand copy of the biography originally belonged to the famous English legal theorist H. L. A. Hart.

Has anyone out there ever met Angelina Jolie?


David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good grief, we might as well be brothers! The office I was asisgned in the Afro-American Studies Department at UMasss when I joined it had been Baldwin's office when he was in the department. You can imagine how I felt?

Did your great-grandfather live in Manhattan or Brooklyn? My grandfather and a friend started the Brooklyn branch of the Socialist Party, back in the day.

Mathematical theorists estimate that you can connect any two people in the world in only three links or so. Astonishing.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Paul Wolff said...

Since my grandfather arrived in the United States as a babe in arms, his father, Abraham Zarembowitch, and your great grandfather may have arrived at about the same time. My grandfather,m by tghe way, supported his family as a cigar salesman.

The Constable said...

Another example of the measuring of interconnectedness is the Erdös Number Project (, mapping collaborations with prolific mathematician Paul Erdös. Erdös himself has an Erdös number 0, anyone who authored a paper with him directly has an Erdös number 1, anyone who did not collaborate with him directly but did collaborate with someone who collaborated with him directly has an Erdös number 2, etc. The mean Erdös number is 4.65 (less than 6!) and a very exclusive group of mathematicians can claim to be more than ten degrees removed from Erdös himself.

Erdös number 0 --- 1 person
Erdös number 1 --- 504 people
Erdös number 2 --- 6593 people
Erdös number 3 --- 33605 people
Erdös number 4 --- 83642 people
Erdös number 5 --- 87760 people
Erdös number 6 --- 40014 people
Erdös number 7 --- 11591 people
Erdös number 8 --- 3146 people
Erdös number 9 --- 819 people
Erdös number 10 --- 244 people
Erdös number 11 --- 68 people
Erdös number 12 --- 23 people
Erdös number 13 --- 5 people

Although he didn't originate the concept, psychologist Stanley Milgram (of "Obedience" fame) popularized this concept with his "Small World Experiment" in the 1960s.

I am myself only three degrees from Kevin Bacon, having "starred" in a student film with an actor who went on to appear in "Deep in the Valley" with Denise Richards, who was in "Wild Things" with Kevin Bacon.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Google tells me that Mae West's Bacon number is also 3! I have just found an entirely new way to waste time. A precious discovery.

Unknown said...

Curious to see if there is anything about my grandfather and General MacArthur in Japan, I stumbled upon this blog and discovered Ludwig Richter and his blog. Ludwig is my cousin using a different name..... we haven't spoken in a few years, not because of any falling out...... but some family issues have made it harder to connect of late..... wow, the world of the internet is strange...... Ludwig, if you see this, feel free to reach out to me! I've been in touch with your sister, it is breaking my heart! xoxo Marcia