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What do the Astronomer Royal and 'Dracula' have in common?

By Charles Arthur, Technology Editor

23 November 2000

What does Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, have in common with the actor Christopher Lee, most famous for repeatedly sucking the blood of virgins on screen? It's nothing to do with Sir Martin's personal habits; instead, a new analysis has discovered that each is the "best connected" person in his field.

The discovery overturns a long-standing urban myth - which had always seemed true when tested - that Kevin Bacon was the best-connected actor in Hollywood.

According to the "six degrees of separation" idea, by linking up the acquaintances of any person you can drawa connection between any two people on the planet. Among Hollywood actors, of whom the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) lists half a million, it had always been thought that Mr Bacon held the prime role.

No longer. Analysis by Dr Mark Newman at the Santa Fe Institute in Ithaca, New York, found that in fact the actor who most often plays a part in any link is Christopher Lee.

"It's not Kevin Bacon at all," Dr Newman told New Scientist magazine, and admitted he had been surprised: he too had subscribed to the urban myth about Bacon's ubiquity.

And a similar analysis of scientific papers in astrophysics showed that Professor Sir Martin Rees, of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, who is also the Astronomer Royal, occupies the same starry position among his peers.

According to Dr Newman's analysis, Sir Martin most commonly collaborated closely with a wide group of people who themselves collaborated most widely, making him a nexus of "connectivity" in the astrophysics world.

While some scientists did have their name on more papers, those were typically huge works signed by dozens or even hundreds of authors - who would be highly unlikely to know each other well.

For example, particle physics discoveries at CERN (aka the European Laboratory for Particle Physics) in Switzerland or Fermilab inthe United States can be signed by up to 500 authors.

Yesterday, Sir Martin was modest about the informal accolade. He said: "I think my style of work is to enjoy working with a lot of collaborators. And the area of research is one where that's appropriate. We're trying to interpret results over a whole range ofastronomy-based research." He added: "I'm certainly relieved not to be the 'most disconnected astrophysicist'."

The idea of searching for these "connected" scientists emerged from mathematicians who wrote papers with the prolific mathematician Paul Erdös, listed as an author on 1,401 papers. It was seen as a high accolade to write a paper with him, or to write a paper with someone who had.

Yet just as some film actors make many films but never amount to much in the world of cinema, an analysis of mathematicians' publications found that the amount of papers produced was no clear guide to "connectedness". The fifth-most published mathematician, Lucien Godeaux, wrote all but one of his 643 papers on his own.

Burt Dr Newman thinks that the study of connectedness could have more benefits than simply identifying the "first among equals" in groups. Such a study could help to produce software to get people in more touch with each other: it might examine your contacts book, for instance, and then your contacts' contacts books, and find paths to effect an introduction to someone.

"Working out the shortest path between people could be useful," Dr Newman said.

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