The Six Degrees Hypothesis Experienced

It is when you travel that you most powerfully experience the reality of Stanley Milgram’s small world hypothesis, the idea that we’re only six degrees away from anyone else.

You’d think that with billions of people in the world, the chance of you running into someone you know (even if only indirectly) on the streets of a faraway town would be tiny, yet in my travels, it’s happened to me repeatedly.

I’m on holiday in Sicily. I’m walking down the streets of Ortygia, the old town of Siracusa, when I hear a voice say, “My god, it’s Tim O’Reilly.” It’s Kevin Altis, whom I’ve never met, but who helps us organize the Python track at Oscon. He too is on holiday.

That night, at dinner, at a fabulous restaurant called Don Camillo, where we’ve gone for a whole fish baked in salt, we see a large group at the next table, all speaking English, but with a couple of people fluent in Italian. We ask for a bit of help with the menu. We discover that this is a group of former and current organic food industry executives on a tour with Boulder-based Culinary Adventures.

They discover in the course of the conversation that we’re from Sebastopol. One of them, Peter Roy, the former CEO of Whole Foods, says he’s on the board of Sebastopol-based Traditional Medicinals, and asks if I know Drake Sadler, the founder and CEO. I do.

He brings over two other people who know Drake. They are from Boulder, so we talk about people we might know in common. I mention Dave Boykin, the son of our next-door neighbors, Marg Starbuck and Bill Boykin. “The furniture maker? I have his stuff in my house! I’ve known him, and Marg and Bill, for 35 years…”

Yes, we’re in a high-end restaurant catering to foreign tourists, and that increases the likelihood of running into other travelers. But still… This is not a unique occurrence. Another time, years before, visiting Monet’s house at Giverny, I ran into two other people from Sebastopol. And a number of years ago, I was walking down a street in Paris, when I someone called out from behind me: “Tim O’Reilly!” It was Sean Devine, at that time the CEO of our Safari Books Online joint venture, who was in town on a business trip, unknown to me. Out of all the streets of Paris, with no knowledge on either of our parts that the other was there, I chose to walk down the street where Sean sat at dinner with a window table facing the street.

It’s a reminder that the world is smaller than it appears.