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Closer by degrees

Sarah Dean

Every so often those clever chaps at Google put a cute trick into one of their online applications. These hidden surprises are usually of no practical use, but drive millions of people to find out what happens when you type 'askew' and 'tilt' into a search box. Their latest fun trick is that you can now find out the Bacon number of any actor in the world. An actor's Bacon number is the number of people that link them to the Footloose star Kevin Bacon.  

I have discovered that the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch has a Bacon number of 2, because he was in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with John Hurt, who is currently shooting a film with Kevin Bacon. Excitingly, this means that I have a Bacon number of 3, because - CLANG! - I went to university with Cumberbatch (although to be honest that name drop should be more of a dull plink! because my sole interaction with future-Sherlock was being part of the stage management of a show he was in.  I was required to hand him a can of beer from the wings. The beer was actually cold tea, thus ensuring that the future TV hotty was sober enough to remember his lines, and I got a 2:1 in prop making).

The original parlour game 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon' is derived from the theory of six degrees of separation. It posits that every human being is connected by six people or fewer. Mathematicians were confident about this in the 1920s, but for the rest of us it was only when the logarithms were put into social media software (and people started posting 'Woah! How do you know my cousin?') that we could see that it is indeed a small world.

In my day job I get to meet quite a few Palestinian Christians and it is always fascinating asking them how far back they can trace their family - essentially how closely related to Jesus are they. Invariably they will have proof of their family being in the area for the past few hundred years, and can often point to something on a map named something similar to their surname, which with a bit of loose conjecture makes it fairly safe to conclude that the genealogy sections of the Old Testament are pretty much a list of their relatives.

The students who came up with the Bacon game in the 1990s have since pointed out that having a low Bacon number isn't all that impressive. It is probably harder to find someone he hasn't worked with in the film industry than someone who has. Most people in cinema have a Bacon number of three or less, so mine isn't going to fast track me into Hollywood's inner sanctum.

But my old Sunday school teacher Mrs. Heyward would be keen to point out that the good news is that - whether or not you went to university with Kevin Bacon himself, or your family is from Bethlehem or Rotherham - everyone's God number is one. Though when she was a little girl, Mrs. Heyward lived next door to LS Lowry ­- that's six degrees of Francis Bacon.

Jude Simpson is on maternity leave.