There’s a famous, pop-trivia game: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The idea is to try and figure out, if you called the person you know who is most likely to know Kevin Bacon, and asked them to do the same thing, how many calls would you have to make before you’re actually talking to Kevin Bacon?
The game is based on the concept that any two people are only separated by six degrees, first posited by Hungarian playwright Frigyes Karinthy. Today, with modern social networks, we actually have some knowledge around this, and while it may actually be true that all humans are within 6 degrees of each other, it actually turns out that most are much closer — generally around 3-4.
But today, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, I’m thinking about things in another way. I’m thinking about connections to historical people. So, the question is, how many degrees of separation are you from Abraham Lincoln?
In some ways, it seems like a crazy question. Lincoln is someone on our money, some legend of history. One may as well be asking, how many degrees of separation am I from Beowulf. But if you really think about it, the truth is shockingly different. Lincoln died on April 15th, 1865. That’s only 145 years ago. That still seems like a long time, but, how old is the oldest person you know? 80? 90? 100? You’ve already reached more than half-way back to Lincoln.
Someone who is 80 now could easily have had a great-grandparent living until the age of 20 — long enough to ask lots of adult questions of that great-grandparent, and hear lots of stories. If that great-grandparent was also 80 when are putative oldest friend was 20, then he was born only 10 years after Lincolns death. That death, and the times after, it would have been clear and present in his parent’s memory.
So, to summarize, if the oldest person you know is only 80, then there’s a very good chance that you’re only 3 degrees removed from Honest Abe. If you know someone older, it might only be 2 — you might know someone who knew someone, and can remember, the time of Lincoln.
Do yourself a favor, and start asking you senior citizens about the world of the past. The stories you hear are bound to amaze you. And perhaps give you a very different perspective on today’s world.