Whispering Pines: Six Degrees of Separation

 

In his latest column, John Cross ’76 explains small-world theory and, by way of six degrees of separation, connects the reader through the College back to George Washington.

We live our lives in a world of seeming contradictions, with an ever-expanding human population and at the same time a sense that the world is becoming a smaller place when it comes to communications and the reach of social networks. The Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy explored this theme in “Chain-Links,” a 1929 short story: “One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any one person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth—anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.”

The mathematical framework for Karinthy’s “small-world problem” was tackled in the early 1950s. Apparently each individual has a personal network of from 500 to 2,500 people, and each one of those people has, in turn, a network of comparable size. From a purely mathematical perspective, it doesn’t take too many links in a chain to get to a very big number, even accounting for overlaps in networks. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram at Harvard undertook an empirical test of Karinthy’s model in the late 1960s by asking volunteers in Nebraska to mail a package to someone that they knew personally who might be able to get it to a target individual in Boston. Many of the chains were not completed, but for those that were, the average number of links was between five and six. Despite methodological shortcomings (small sample size, a high rate of uncompleted chains, and non-randomness in the selection of participants), Milgram’s summary of his research in Psychology Today fired the popular imagination. “Six degrees of separation” became a part of the cultural lexicon.

Thus, an offhand remark by actor Kevin Bacon in 1994 that he had worked with (or had worked with someone else who had worked with) everyone in the film industry prompted four Albright College students to invent a movie trivia game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” A person’s “Bacon number” indicates the number of links necessary to connect them to the actor. Initially Bacon was irked by the attention, but he has since created “The Kevin Bacon Game for Good,” a charitable giving website.

Milgram’s summary of his research in Psychology Today fired the popular imagination. “Six degrees of separation” became a part of the cultural lexicon.

“Small-World Theory” continues to attract attention as way to model neural networks, social media interactions, and marketing strategies. Within the past month newspapers reported that archaeologists were applying “small world theory” to ceramic styles to understand the growth and collapse of social networks in the American Southwest between 1200 A.D. and 1450 A.D. “Small-world” methods are also being employed in the interests of national security as a way to sift through financial and communications data. Within a few degrees of separation it may be as easy to connect me to a suspected terrorist as it is to connect me to one of the great figures in world history. Sharing a class back in college, having a casual conversation at a business conference, or living in the same neighborhood with someone may put us only a few degrees of separation from either the people we most admire or those we hold in utter contempt. It may not be such a small world after all.

Six Degrees of Separation, John Cross

Let me focus on one of the positive examples that will give you a personal and Bowdoin-connected tie to George Washington. I first met antiquarian bookseller Francis O’Brien in 1991 when I drove my grandfather to Portland so that he could visit with his longstanding friend. In 1914, when Francis was a young boy playing in the snow outside his Portland home, a man asked him if he would deliver a letter to General Joshua Chamberlain. According to Chamberlain biographer John Pullen, when Francis knocked on the door of the house on Ocean Avenue (#499), “…a lady came to the door and invited him in. He explained that he had a letter for General Chamberlain. She suggested that Francis deliver it himself and conducted him into a room where he saw—lying in bed and propped up by pillows—an old man with white hair and a sweeping moustache. Francis approached the bed and handed over the envelope. Chamberlain glanced at it, looked at him, and said to the woman, ‘Now there’s a good boy. Give him a nickel.’” Chamberlain died shortly after Francis’s visit.

From Chamberlain there are a number of figures of historical importance (e.g., Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ulysses S. Grant), but I’ll follow the link to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who stayed at President Chamberlain’s house in 1875 when he returned to the campus to deliver his “Morituri Salutamus” oration at his 50th Reunion. In Chamberlain’s house, Longfellow slept in the very same bed chamber that he and his young bride had occupied from 1829-1832, when he was a Bowdoin faculty member.

Longfellow, in turn, had met the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825 when the Revolutionary War hero was in Portland to receive an honorary degree from Bowdoin. He also visited Lafayette in France in 1826. The Marquis was often described as being as close to George Washington as a son might have been. George Washington died in 1799, while Massachusetts Hall was still under construction. However, James Bowdoin II, for whom the College was named, knew Washington well, and in 1778 he presented General Washington with a gold-headed cane (now in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society). While it may not be the shortest possible connection to our first President, the Cross-O’Brien-Chamberlain-Longfellow-Lafayette-Washington route is my small gift to each of you, with our friendship forming the sixth degree of separation.

 

With best wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. Mike Coster '57 says:

    Very Interesting, John
    Mike Coster ’57

  2. Barbara Kaster says:

    Fantastic job, John! I always “knew” we were that close! Thanks, as always. B

  3. Barbara Kaster says:

    I especially enjoyed this column. I always “knew” we were close. Thanks, as always! B

  4. Nancy Bellhouse May '78 says:

    Thanks, John. I’ll add this to my mental list of favorite Whispering Pines columns.

  5. Elizabeth Aaroe says:

    I so enjoy reading your stories. We are such fortunate beneficiaries of your wonderful curiosity for our beloved Bowdoin. Thank you, John, with a very full heart. E

  6. Al DeMoya, '72 says:

    I echo Elizabeth completely. I could not have said it better.

  7. jean m. yarbrough says:

    John,

    This is a wonderful story. I never knew what the title meant, but you explained it beautifully. I am in your debt.

    Thanks so much for this,
    Jean

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