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Students study six degrees of Kevin Bacon, create Internet page

From
January 28, 1997

By Jeff Morneau, Cavalier Daily Associate Editor

"That's a wrap."

With those words from the director's chair, graduate Engineering student Brett Tjaden's on-camera meeting with actor Kevin Bacon had come to an end.

The director in question worked for the Discovery Channel, which had flown Tjaden, 27, out to L.A. to meet Bacon. Discovery Channel's show "Cyberlife" was taping a piece on the Website Tjaden and fellow graduate Engineering student Glen Wasson created for the game known popularly as "The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."

Although nobody is exactly sure how the game began, its rise to national prominence can be traced to an episode of MTV's Jon Stewart show. Three fraternity members from Albright College in Reading, Pa., who happened to be movie trivia buffs, discovered that they could link any actor they thought of to Kevin Bacon (i.e., Meg Ryan starred with Tom Hanks in "Sleepless in Seattle;" Hanks starred with Bacon in "Apollo 13"-- thus, it requires two links to get from Ryan to Bacon). For most Hollywood stars, the link could take only two to three steps. In fact, the fraternity men soon realized, it was hard to find anyone who took more than four steps to complete a link.

Even when they expanded the pool to actors worldwide, it seldom took more than seven or eight steps. Thinking they had stumbled onto something, the three students called the "Jon Stewart Show" with their discovery. Stewart, intrigued, then convinced Bacon to appear on the show. During Bacon's appearance, the three fraternity members were on the phone, and Stewart would call out the names of actors and actresses. In each case, they were able to make a connection, simply through their knowledge of movie trivia.

The Stewart episode brought "six degrees" instant recognition. It did not take long for the game to make its way to the Internet, inspiring many different sites explaining the theory or promoting the trivia game. Soon, sites were generating official rules for playing.

Enter Tjaden and Wasson onto the scene.

The two University students first heard about the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" from the Jon Stewart show. Also intrigued by the idea, the two recognized the theory as an application of some basic computer science principals.

"This game is actually a demonstration of some fundamental algorithms," Tjaden said. "It's not anything cutting edge. It's stuff you would learn in any introductory computer science course."

After some consideration, Tjaden and Wasson decided to create a Website: users could enter their favorite Hollywood stars and find out the least number of links between the person and Kevin Bacon.

"We wanted to know what the fewest number of links would be," Wasson said.

The two envisioned a site that would allow users to enter their favorite movie stars and get an accurate "Bacon Number" for them.

Before the final product took shape, the two played around with various site designs. After initial design problems involving speed, they discovered a way to minimize the amount of time the computer spent searching. Then, with help from the Computer Science Department's ADAMS research group, Tjaden wrote the computer programming code used by the site -- a process that took about two weeks.

The creation has become a national sensation, receiving over 20,000 queries a day. The site, entitled "The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia," can be reached on any Internet browser at the following address: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/oracle/.

Recognized by most of the major Internet search engines, and recently honored by Time magazine as one of the top 10 sites of the year, the page's creators have achieved both critical and popular acclaim.

The Oracle uses an Internet Movie Database and all the actors and actresses listed in it to provide the shortest path from a user-entered film star to Kevin Bacon. The number of links required to connect a star to Bacon is referred to as the star's "Bacon Number." According to Wasson, the idea of the Bacon Number also has its origins in academia.

"It comes from a famous mathematician named Erdos, who was a prolific collaborator and publisher of papers," Wasson said. "He claimed that anybody who published with him directly had an Erdos number of one, and that those who had published with people who had published with him had an Erdos number of two, and so forth."

The Bacon Number follows along the same lines.

An actor or actress who starred in a movie with Bacon directly would have a Bacon Number of one, whereas a star who has been in a film with another actor who starred with Bacon would have a number of two, and so on.

The Oracle lets visitors enter any star they wish. Drawing from the information contained in the Internet Movie Database, the site generates a Bacon Number for the star, listing the intermediate actors and actresses and the films they starred in.

Most find it impossible to stump the site: the Internet Movie Database currently lists about 175,000 actors and actresses. It is not limited to searching for recent or American actors.

Users can make inquiries using stars from many years ago, all the way back to the days of silent film. Charlie Chaplin, for example, has a Bacon Number of three (Chaplin starred in the 1976 production of "Countess from Hong Kong" with Marlon Brando, who starred with Jack Nicholson in the 1976 production of "The Missouri Breaks," who in turn starred with Kevin Bacon in the 1992 film as a surprise to the two; Tjaden says he never imagined he would have the chance to meet Kevin Bacon because of the site.

In preparation for the Discovery Channel filming, Tjaden flew to L.A. and stayed overnight -- all expenses paid -- in a posh hotel. Early the next day, he went to the Beverly Hills hotel where Bacon was staying. Following carefully dictated instructions, Tjaden entered into camera view and then shook Bacon's hand.

"He stood up and said 'Oh, this is a great thing you've done, not only for the country but for the world,'" Tjaden said. "He was hamming it up. So I figured it was my turn to speak, and I complimented him on his role in 'Footloose.' He said 'Well, thank you, but I've done other movies since then.'"

The director quickly broke off the scene, and instructed Tjaden to compliment him on a more recent movie. Tjaden did the shot again, this time complimenting Bacon on his role in the film "Apollo 13." Tjaden, still winging it, told Bacon he would bet that Tom Hanks wished he had someone doing this for him -- to which Bacon replied that Tom Hanks was doing just fine by himself.

"The director yelled cut, and sensing that he had gotten all of the verbal talent out of me that he was going to get, yelled, 'That's a wrap,'" Tjaden said. "It didn't surprise me that he didn't put our discussion into the final segment."

One year later, the site is still busy, enjoying peak periods after media attention draws more visitors to the new information, Tjaden and Wasson don't have to maintain the site themselves. Wasson, however, said the site probably has reached its full potential.

"The content is going to pretty much remain as is," he said. "We might develop other sites, but we don't know if they'll go as well."

"We would definitely do it again," Tjaden said. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences, but they have almost all been good."


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