Do You Know Who I Am?

There’s this fascinating study I first heard about from a talk a TED.com called ‘What We Learned from 5 Million Books‘, which I highly recommend watching.

In one part of the study, the authors took records from Google’s analysis of millions of books and charted how the frequency of the use of famous peoples’ names changed throughout their lifetimes. The authors say: “We took all 740,000 people with entries in Wikipedia … and sorted [them by] frequency. For every year from 1800-1950, we constructed a cohort consisting of the fifty most famous people born in that year.”

This is the graph they got:

This graph shows that the names of politicians, for example, tend to be mentioned much more frequently starting in their 40s and 50s, while famous authors tend to get mentioned more and more starting in their 30s.

Both groups are mentioned much more often than physicists, chemists and mathematicians. The authors of the study dryly say: “Science is a poor route to fame.”

I realize that it’s very easy to make post hoc explanations for observed results, but this graph makes intuitive sense to me. Science is perhaps a poor route to fame because physicists, chemists and mathematicians deal with ideas that can become famous in their own right. It is possible to talk about “fuzzy logic” or the “bell curve” or “jumping genes” or “black holes” or the “periodic table” without mentioning the people who thought of them. (Even for a very long description of each, mentioning the person once or twice in the introductory paragraph is sufficient).

But for politicians and authors, it is difficult to discuss them without mentioning their names, frequently. It’s nearly impossible to write about Jimmy Carter or Stephen King without using their names in virtually every paragraph.

Actors perhaps fall in the middle because they are often known for a famous role or two they played. So, it’s possible to intermingle usage of ‘Anthony Perkins’ and ‘Norman Bates’, thereby watering down the frequency of the real person’s name.

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