Aristotle or Britney -- who's the most famous?
A new book seeks to rank history's most influential figures, writes Christopher Middleton
Imagine an X Factor-style contest for ancient philosophers. Lined up at the end of the show, shaking nervously, are Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. After what seems like an eternity, the off-camera voice announces: "And the sage who will be going home tonight is . . . Socrates."
Imagine no more. Yes, history has just got the hit-parade treatment, with the publication of Who's Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank.
It's the lovechild of two American authors. Their aim was to ascertain whether Mozart beats Beethoven (he does, by three places), and if, at the top of the charts, the significance of Jesus outweighs that of Mohammed. It apparently does. William Shakespeare, meanwhile, just pipped Abraham Lincoln and George Washington to fourth spot.
Not surprisingly, the book has been showered with both praise and scorn. How, cry the critics, can there be only three women (Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, plus Joan of Arc) in the Top 100? How come Elvis Presley (69) squeezes William the Conqueror and John F Kennedy off the dance floor? And on what grounds can Genghis Khan be so close on the coat-tails of Winston Churchill?
Pelted from all sides with the academic equivalent of rotten fruit, co-author Steven Skiena stands by his findings. He refuses to back down when it comes to defending his and co-author Charles B Ward's methodology (Ward is a Google engineer).
"We have taken a bunch of different input variables and mashed them together," says Skiena, a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University in New York.
Two significant factors pop out with each character, says Skiena. "The first is their achievement-based renown, which we call gravitas. The second is how popular they are, which we call their celebrity. We combine these into one final statistic, which we then age to get that person's correct historical significance."
As he notes: "A figure like Britney Spears is going to score very high in terms of celebrity, but less high when it comes to gravitas. By contrast, Aristotle will score high on gravitas, but not on celebrity."
So far, so reasonable. But the loudest criticism is that women and non-Westerners are under-represented. True, says Skiena, though he maintains it's not down to him, but the algorithms. He is not making a value judgment, he insists, merely totting up the number of computer-generated references detected in predominantly English-speaking literature.
Or should that be American-speaking literature? There are a dozen or more US presidents in the Top 100, while Margaret Thatcher languishes at 271. Nelson Mandela doesn't even make the Top 100.