Book cover photo of "Who's Bigger?" courtesy of Alice Soloway/Cambridge University Press.

Book cover photo of “Who’s Bigger?” courtesy of Alice Soloway/Cambridge University Press.


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) He’s a man with a ton of titles — Prince of Peace, Son of God, Shepherd of Souls — but now Jesus has one more: the biggest name in human history. Ever.

So say the authors of a startling new book, “Who’s Bigger: Where Historical Figures Really Rank,” which tries to settle, once and for all, the question of who’s who.

It’s a work of “culturometrics,” a fancy term to describe quantitative data analysis applied to individuals in society the same way Sabermetrics tracks performance in baseball, pundits aggregate polls in elections, and algorithms rule computer search engines.

“Bigger” is a complex collection of lists and rankings, but none is more provocative than its Top 100:  Jesus is No. 1, Adolf Hitler is No. 7, everyone is overwhelmingly white and 97 are male.

But keep your blood pressure in check. “Bigger does not mean better,” said co-author Steven Skiena, a computer science professor at Stony Brook University where he heads the Data Science Laboratory.

Left, Steven Skiena photo courtesy Stony Brook University, right, Charles B. Ward photo Stony Brook University

Left, Steven Skiena photo courtesy Stony Brook University, right, Charles B. Ward photo Stony Brook University


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

To research “Bigger,” Skiena and Charles Ward, an engineer on the ranking team at Google, created a complex amalgam of measures. To establish their “significance” ranking, they assessed more than 800,000 names, calculated scores of celebrity and achievement or gravitas and then factored in how long, and how long ago, someone lived.

Hence the Top 10 names need no introduction:

1. Jesus

2. Napoleon

3. Muhammad

4. William Shakespeare

5. Abraham Lincoln

6. George Washington

7. Adolf Hitler

8. Aristotle

9. Alexander the Great

10. Thomas Jefferson

Where things get really curious is moving down the list:

— Protestant reformer Martin Luther (No. 17) is just above Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Reformer Martin Luther (center) works closely with several colleagues in translating the first German-language edition of the Bible. The edition appeared in 1532, 15 years after Luther's challenge to the practice of selling indulgences led to the Protestant Reformation. At right are Johann Burgenhagen (standing), a pastor, and Caspar Cruciger, who edited many of Luther's writings. Engraving by J.C. Buttre. Religion News Service file photo *This day in history note: 1520 - Martin Luther publicly burned papal edict demands he recant

Reformer Martin Luther (center) works closely with several colleagues in translating the first German-language edition of the Bible. Engraving by J.C. Buttre. He was listed No. 17 in a new ranking of historical figures. Religion News Service file photo 


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

— Elvis Presley (No. 69) is notched between Socrates and William the Conqueror.

— King Arthur (No. 85), who may be a myth, tops Michelangelo.

— Only Queen Elizabeth I (No. 13), Queen Victoria (No. 16), and St. Joan of Arc (No. 95) make the Top 100; whether the list includes anyone who is black depends on how you classify St. Augustine of Hippo (No. 72), the North African/Roman theologian of the early Christian church.

— President Obama barely missed the top 100, coming in at No. 111, but ahead of the Virgin Mary (No. 127).

Researchers say there was no nefarious plot to exclude women and blacks. But in centuries past, those two groups were barred from historically significant roles, their social contributions unrecorded by others.

Today, to get a high ranking in Wikipedia, with long entries, frequent edits and numerous links to other important people and events, a woman has to be so much stronger than a man, “it’s like they have to be four IQ points higher,” said Skiena.

Saint Joan of Arc

St. Joan of Arc was listed No. 95 in a new ranking of historical figures. photo courtesy of Vanderbilt8 via Wikimedia Commons


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Wikipedia and Google ngrams (a searchable collection of words in scanned English language books) are the basis of the “Bigger” research — and also the source of its bias toward the Anglo-American, English-language version of history in books and online. Relying on Wikipedia, where only 15 percent of editors are women and user-generated data can be riddled with errors, is also a risky choice, critics have noted.

This methodology also crimped the authors’ ability, for example, to rank the Dalai Lama. The current leader of Tibetan Buddhism was often listed by his official title, the 14th Dalai Lama, which is a status, not an individual, in the data. That meant his ranking couldn’t be calculated.

For the researchers, significance is not a value judgment. The authors examined people’s reputations as memes that evolve across time, said Skiena. They traced the evolution of the term “meme” to famed evolutionary zoologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins (No. 1,630 in their top 2,000).

“We measured how successfully they are propagating their meme through the course of history,” said Skiena.

Jesus is the indisputable leader, with his name appearing once in every 10,000 words in the ngrams.

Confucius presenting the young Gautama Buddha to Laozi.

Confucius presenting the young Gautama Buddha to Laozi. Gautama Buddha was listed No. 52 in a new ranking of historical figures. Photo courtesy of U.S. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Likewise, founders of religions are highly significant people. Skiena noted that could decrease across time as the proportion of writing in English is no longer focused primarily on faith or philosophy, as it was in ancient days.

But there may yet be more popes in the Top 100 one day than just the two listed currently — St. Peter (No. 65) and Pope John Paul II (No. 91) — because contemporary popes are living longer than their predecessors.

Other religious figures in the top 100:

34. Paul the Apostle (New Testament author, missionary)

52. Gautama Buddha (central figure of Buddhism)

57. Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism)

(RNS) Joseph Smith founded the Mormon faith after he said he was visited in a grove of trees by God and Jesus; he was the first Mormon to run for president, but not the last. RNS file photo courtesy of the Museum of Church History and Art/The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(RNS) Joseph Smith founded the Mormon faith. He was listed No. 57 in a new ranking of historical figures. RNS file photo courtesy of the Museum of Church History and Art/The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

89. Ali (son-in-law of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad)

90. St. Thomas Aquinas (Catholic theologian)

99. John Calvin (Protestant theologian)

Wish the list were different? Their “Who’s Bigger” app for Apple iPhone and iPad allows people to compare their own choices with those of Skiena and Ward.

But neither Pope Francis, Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013, nor Miley Cyrus, a Time finalist, will top the charts. His election and her twerking episode both grabbed headlines after the authors had finished their research.

KRE/AMB END GROSSMAN

25 Comments

  1. Madame Curie, Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur, Jonas Salk, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Henry Ford, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Galileo, Copernicus, Leonardo De Vinci — where were these people on this list?

  2. I disagree with Jesus being on top of the “biggest people” list. Assuming that he actually lived, he had little to do with his popularity or the propagation of Christianity. St. Paul and Constantine took care of that. Without them, Jesus would be an insignificant figure, and likely forgotten.

  3. @Guillermo. It was the event of Jesus Christ’s resurrection and public ascension into heaven that turned his demoralised, even terrified, followers into zealots who spread the news of Jesus Christ’s teachings, life and resurrection throughout the then-known world, in many instances at the cost of their own lives.

    St. Paul, in participating in this, was only acting in response to Christ’s teaching and his own miraculous conversion. Paul was just one of the many hands that participated in the writing of the New Testament and the organisation of the early church.

    As to Constantine, his legacy on Christianity was neutral, perhaps even negative, for while it established Christianity in the Roman Empire, it softened the church’s radical message of peace, love and forgiveness, and compromised the acceptance of Christianity in neighbouring empires, by too strong identification with one particular worldly power. The Roman Empire in any case was a declining force, and Christianity would in the coming centuries be stronger in countries well beyond its borders, e.g. Ethiopia, Armenia, and Kerala.

  4. Jesus is, in reality, a mythological figure – not sure why “he” would be included in a list of people for which there is good evidence for their existence and their lives aren’t preexisting mythology. I am not convinced Jesus existed (refer to Richard Carrier’s commentary about this) – even if he did, everything written about him is hearsay and borrowed mythology.

  5. Skeptic and Guillermo may exist now, but in a hundred years they will be forgotten and some will say “they never existed.” Awful strange that a Man who never existed split time in half as to what came before and what came after Him. Obviously these two clueless commentators have never studied history, ecclesiastical, secular, or Jewish, never mind the New Testament. Hey, Skeptic try starting your own myth and see how far you get! Imagine that, the whole world was duped into believing that Jesus Christ existed. Doesn’t say much for the human race. You are the ones who are “gullable” believing utter nonsense that flies in the face of facts and human testimony.

  6. I do not deserve the insult Sarah. And Dude, you’re right about Smith. That is why the Mormons are what they are. Non-existent prior to Smith, with no influence on the world and, compared to the Catholic Church, a tiny fraction of members who are mostly confined to Utah.

  7. Presley is certainly the top ranked amongst singers, musicians, whatever, in the entertainment world. He also ranks first as a singer, in MIT´s “Pantheon” a computerized and daily up-dated programme that ranks people by both the number of languages the bios of the most famous have been translated, at Wikipedia, and by how many hits for reading, knowledge, research, whatever, they´ve each received, both from their countrymen and from those who are not, since Wikipedia started. In other words, if the biography of someone from China is being searched, but just by people from China, and under its Chinese translation, then a factor goes against it. Under ¨Pantheon¨”, the life of Elvis Presley gets the same interest from every corner of the world, so it is not surprising that he would end up ranked 69 on this particular survey of the “biggest ” (meaning most celebrated, most famous, whatever), persons that have ever lived.

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