It's a Small World -- 02/15/02

You've probably heard the phrase "six degrees of separation" to describe the "theory" which claims that is the average number of connections needed to connect any two randomly selected people. Besides the trivia game that tries to connect movie actors based on who co-starred in films with them who then were in other pictures with... etc., this seems well engrained in folklore in the comment that "It's a small world."... but the main scientific source is in studies done by social psychologist Stanley Milgram back in the late sixites.

Dr. Milgram sent a letters to three hundred randomly selected people in Omaha, asking them to pass this letter to a target person in Boston. by passing it on to people they knew with the request that they, in turn, would pass it to someone they knew, etc. until it was delivered to the target person.

Yesterday I got an email from my daughter-in-law -- she was taking part in an experiment being run by some sociologists at Columbia University that is an attemt to find out if it really is a small world or not. To quote from the Small World Project webpage:

Milgram gave each "sender" some information about the target including name, location, and occupation, so that if the sender did not know the target (and it was extremely unlikely that they would), they could send the letter to someone they did know who they thought would be "closer" to the target. Thus began a chain of senders, each member of the chain attempting to zero in on the target by sending the letter to someone else: a friend, family member, business associate, or casual acquaintance.

Milgram's surprising finding was that for the 60 chains that eventually reached the target, the average number of steps in a chain was around six, a result that has entered folklore as the phrase "Six degrees of separation."

But is it really true? While Milgram's first experiment suggests it is, other experiments have been less conclusive, and no experiment has been done to test the theory on a global scale.

Leah forwarded to me a request to contact someone who is a veterinarian in the Norwegian army. I think I was able to give this message a big boost because I sent it to someone I know who lives in Oslo, Norway. Well, at least that got the message to the right country, although I think it is still hundreds of miles away from the indended recipient.

I found this fascinating so I went to the Small World Project site and read the details of Milgram's studies and learned about the lack of corroborating studies and about some theories which suggest that six degrees of separation is not valid. The site goes into detail about the organization of their study and offers the chance to volunteer to be someone starting a chain. I couldn't resist, so I clicked on that opportunity and they assigned me a target who lives in Estonia. Hmmm. I do not know anyone who lives in Estonia... so I picked someone I know in England... working on the theory that emailing to England has moved things closer, cut the total distance.

I find this to be fascinating and I'm looking forward to reading the results of their study.

I actually did watch part of the Olympics this week -- I think it was Tuesday night -- watched about fifteen or twenty minutes of the snowboard halfpipe final and about three minutes of pairs figure skating (gee, so I missed the chance to see the performances that became so controversial that they've now decided to give the Canadian pair their own gold medal and to suspend a French judge... oh well...yawn) and, who knows, I might tune in for another fifteen or twenty minutes sometime. How much longer does it go on?

I did watch the winter Olympics a few years ago, not from Nagano, the one before that, somehwere in Europe I think... probably watched several hours worth... so I think that was enough. (How do I know the last one was in Nagano, Japan? Because one of my classrooms is decorated with some framed Nagano posters. Guess which company was the official computer for that Olympics... )

I have seen those arena figure skating shows (yes, and a couple of those Disney things on ice, back when Jennifer and Sean were younger)... I'm not sure how I got persuaded to go to the first one, but it was such a fantastic show (the figure skating show I mean, not the ones with people in funny costumes) that I was quick to buy tickets the next time it came to town. Watching on television is not quite the same as being there, especially with those idiot network commentators and their mindless babble and their stupid human interest interruptions. I just don't have enough spare time to waste hours sitting in front of the television. (Yeah, yeah, I know, I probably spend too many hours in front of computers.)

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