Review of "Who's Bigger - Where Historical Figures Really Rank" by Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward

Who are the 100 most significant people in history? Historians may use their judgment to create such a list. Or they may try to compute the significance of historical persons and rank them accordingly. One way to measure the significance of a person is to count the books or papers written that refer to that person.

This is the idea behind this fascinating book. As the authors point out on page 21 "if all roads lead to Rome, Rome must be a pretty important place." For practical purposes the authors had to rely on Wikipedia but that is not central to their method. Their technique could have been used on any other collection of material. Their method does more than simply count references and it is explained in detail in the first two chapters of the book. The method can distinguish between significance (gravitas) and fame (celebrity). This is achieved by looking at the time course of references to a historical figure (see Section 2,3 of the book for details).

The results on the 100 most historically significant figures have Jesus in first place, followed by Napoleon, Muhammad, Shakespeare, and Abraham Lincoln (table on page 5). Their method is further explained and tested in different contexts in Chapters 3-7 that together with the first two constitute Part I of the book titled Quantitative History. Part II, Historical Rankings, contains eight chapters that display rankings in specific domains such as Sports and the Arts. One appendix deals with mathematical details and another provides information about resources on the topic.

There is a practical application of such lists (no matter how they are constructed), that is in deciding what to cover in a history course. Chapter 3 of the book, titled "Who Belongs to Bonnie's Textbook," deals with this issue. It turns out that this particular textbook discusses individuals from a very wide range of both significance and fame. It includes several U.S. presidents and other political leaders (in the top 200 in terms of significance) as well as some quite obscure figures that rank below 5,000. I did not recognize any of their names and I wonder why any fifth grader would have to read about them. While one may argue about the merits of a particular methodology, it is hard not to agree that even an imperfect OBJECTIVE ranking is a better guide on what to include in an elementary history textbook than the subjective opinions of school boards and authors. (I am not advocating enforcing such rankings but rather using them as guidelines.)