[10 March 2009]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
Fame, because it tends to be fleeting and fickle, is hard to measure. Over the past 20 years or so, it has been persuasively argued that the most famous (alive-at-time) person on the planet was:
a) Pope John Paul II
b) Muhammad Ali
c) Michael Jordan
To that list, we can safely add President Barack Obama who, by almost any measure, is easily the most famous man in the world at this moment.
But how can we say for sure that they are - or were - the most famous?
The late Alistair Cooke, beloved British chronicler of America, probably put it best: “To say anyone is the most famous, or the best, the greatest, the most beautiful, is - like all rhetoric - a method of bullying the reader into sharing a prejudice.”
Eric Schulman, an astronomer, has applied tongue-in-cheek scientific reasoning to come up with a metric for measuring fame. Schulman’s method is based on Internet search engines and a standard unit of fame that he calls the Harrison (Ha), in which one Ha is equal to the number of Web pages that mention former Beatle George Harrison.
“I quantify fame as the amount that one motivates others to talk about oneself on the Internet,” said Schulman, who outlined his methodology in a paper published in the Annals of Improbable Research. (In a world full of sober, high-minded journals, AIR stands slyly apart; its purpose, Schulman said, is “to make people laugh, and then think.”)
When Schulman began his inquiry into the quantitative measurement of fame 10 years ago, he used former White House intern Monica Lewinsky as his benchmark, but he switched to Harrison in a new study published in February. He discarded Lewinsky because her fame has been slipping while Harrison’s fame, despite his death in 2001, “has been roughly constant over the last 10 years, making him a more appropriate universal standard of fame.”
Using search engines such as Google has some obvious flaws, which explains why Ali and Jordan can be eclipsed by the likes of Paris Hilton and Angelina Jolie. Simply Googling fails to take into account places where Internet penetration is low. And certainly no one would claim that fame is exclusively digital.
During nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, I was impressed with just how deeply Jordan’s fame had penetrated some of the more remote corners of the globe.
On one occasion I discussed the great Chicago Bull with a dagger-wielding tribesman in North Yemen. On another, a bleary-eyed Kosovar warlord apologized for yawning through our interview. His excuse: He had been up late watching the satellite feed of Jordan leading the Bulls to their second “threepeat,” in 1998.
But the most remarkable was a Serb man living in a Croat village in Bosnia. As the frenzy of ethnic cleansing intensified, his Croat wife hid him in the attic, which he did not leave for more than a year. Not even his children knew he was up there. After the Dayton agreement was signed, he ventured into the street for the first time. I happened to be in the village that day and rushed over to his house. When I told him I was with the Chicago Tribune, his face lit up, and he asked me what kind of season Jordan was having.
Ali, the self-proclaimed “Greatest,” has enjoyed similar universal popularity, which leads me to believe that to be truly famous it helps to be an American (proximity to the star-maker machinery), it helps to be non-white (cross-cultural appeal) and it also helps if your life’s work is something that appeals to a broad spectrum of people - sports or popular music.
So how do you explain the extraordinary fame of a frail Polish gentleman who lived in Rome for many years and passed away in 2005?
Schulman says Pope John Paul II doesn’t even rate B-list celebrity status on the Internet, but the Vatican press office is unswerving in its claims of universality about the man. In traveling to 129 countries and routinely drawing crowds of a million or more, the pope was seen in the flesh by more people than anyone else who had ever lived.
Alistair Cooke once made a similar claim about Charlie Chaplin. Cooke befriended the Little Tramp in the 1930s and was constantly astounded by the crowds that turned out to see him.
“In our century more people have come out everywhere to catch a glimpse of Charlie Chaplin than did so for any other human in history,” Cooke wrote in the mid-1990s. My own guess is that Pope John Paul II turned out larger crowds than Chaplin, but that many more people have “seen” Chaplin on the silver screen.
Lastly, was anyone more famous in her time than Queen Victoria, who for 63 years reigned over a global empire upon which the sun never set?
Don’t ask Google. Queen Victoria, who had an entire age - the Victorian Age - named after her, is not nearly as famous on the Internet as, say, Victoria Beckham.