5.5 Degrees of Separation

Posted: Jun 08, 2007 12:01 AM
5.5 Degrees of Separation

Dear Professor,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your scholarly response to my casual reference to sociologists who talk about there being only six degrees of separation between all of us. In a small, wonderfully interconnected state like Arkansas, there may be only four degrees of separation - if that.

You helped confirm my wholly unscientific theory by noting that a former student of yours knows my son. Which would separate us by only three degrees. And you're not even in Arkansas.

But as for those Six Degrees of Separation, you had a little correction to offer: First off, you inform me, it's "5.5 steps on average between random pairs of people," rather than between all of us. Thank you, sir. There's nothing like being precise about the imprecise. It lends an air of solidity to what otherwise might be confused with mere conjecture.

A figure like 5.5 exudes scientific authority in a way a simple 6 could never match. Of course, 5.57 would carry even more weight. The more decimal places, the more impressive the number. If <Π> were an exact number, it wouldn't have the same aura at all.

Now you've gone and whetted my curiosity about that .5 person. I visualize him as very short. Or, if a she, as a Venus de Milo figure - a streamlined torso shorn of excess limbs.

I now await the terribly serious letter pointing out that this .5 person is just a statistical abstraction, but is that any reason, I ask you, to dehumanize that half a person? We have civil rights laws in this country, you know. I bet Randy Newman is still getting irate letters inspired by his politically incorrect ditty about short people.

But "more important," you add, those 5.5 degrees of separation were discovered "not by a sociologist but by the psychologist Stanley Milgram." Of course that's more important. Every academic knows it's which discipline deserves credit for a theory that counts, not the theory itself.

Somehow I am not surprised to see that you're a professor of psychology. Of course you're not about to let those uppity sociologists horn in on your turf.

Like any good scholar, you cite your source: "the first issue (Volume 1, issue 1) of ŒPsychology Today' on May 1967." I'm heading out to find one now. I hear the centerfold is something else.

You credit Stanley Milgram for this scientific "discovery," but his experiments have been challenged so regularly by now that it might be safer to refer to it as a theory.

And like many another scientific theory, could it have been science fiction first? Literature has a way of anticipating science. Or as Augustine put it, art is science in the making.

Ever hear of Frigyes Karinthy? Neither had I until I googled Six Degrees of Separation and came up with the name of this Hungarian author. It seems he wrote a short story called "Chains" in which he theorized that, thanks to modern communications, we can connect any two people in the world through at most five others. (OK, so he was .5 off.)

Karinthy's story was written in 1929, long before the Internet. In it, one of the characters "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 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."

It was left to psychologist Stanley Milgram to do the fieldwork that backed up Karinthy's intuition. Then came along playwright John Guare to popularize the concept by naming his 1990 play about a con man and his gullible victims "Six Degrees of Separation."

To quote one of the characters in the play, "I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The president of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we're so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection. Š I am bound, you are bound, to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people."

Maybe it's really only 5.5 people - yes, on average, and between random pairs - but somehow I doubt if John Guare's play would have had quite the same appeal if it had been called "5.5 Degrees of Separation."


Inky Wretch