Many of us non-mathematicians are intrigued by the movie “Proof,” the TV show “Numbers” and the book “Freakenomics,” even though we don’t fully understand how math problems are solved. Now University of Massachusetts researchers have invented a new algorithm which solves the problem that has puzzled mathematicians for years: how does “six degrees of separation” work? This is the theory, made into a play and then a movie of the same name, that says that there are only 6 people between yourself and anyone in the world you want to make contact with.

First of all, what is an algorithm? Wikipedia.com defines it as a set of well-defined instructions for accomplishing some task which will result in the solution to a problem. A simple example of an algorithm is a recipe for making a cake. If you measure all the ingredients correctly and mix them in the right order, then bake the result at a specific temperature for a specific amount of time, you will end up with a cake.

The idea of six degrees of separation started in the 1960s with two psychologists who devised a plan: People in Omaha, Nebrashka were asked to deliver a letter to a target person in Boston via an unconventional route: the message had to be passed through a chain of acquaintances. The people starting the chain had only some basic information about the target individual?including name, age and occupation?and were asked to forward the letter to someone they knew on a first-name basis in an effort to deliver it through as few intermediaries as possible. None of the people who initially sent the letter knew the target individual. Of the letters that reached the target, the median number of people in the message-passing chain was six.

Computer scientists

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