• 03.25.14

MIT Media Lab Maps History’s Biggest Celebrities

From the Media Lab’s Macro Connections Group, an interconnected map of the 11,000 most famous people throughout history–and what their fame says about cultural values from one nation to the next.

How famous is Justin Bieber really? Sure he’s on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine this month. And yeah, he gets a seemingly endless stream of press just for being alive. But according to Pantheon, MIT Media Lab’s attempt to map celebrities throughout history, Bieber is little more than a spiky-haired blip. Search Pantheon for the world’s most famous singers over time, and he doesn’t even rank in the top 10.


The Pantheon project is, as César Hidalgo, director of Macro Connections group at the MIT Media Lab, says, “an effort for the first time to generate a global comprehensive map of famous connections,” with world maps, treemaps, matrices, and scatterplots. People can be sorted by profession or country of origin, and you can create lists of celebrities during specific time frames. It’s tons of fun to play with. But more than that, it offers some remarkable insights into cultural values throughout history.

Did you know, for instance, that the United Kingdom has produced more chemists than France? And half the people on Brazil’s list of famous people are soccer players? Celebrities are a window onto the different ideas and enterprises cultures hold dear–and, if the Pantheon is any indication, they always have been.

To create Pantheon, Hidalgo’s team first established a list of the most Wikipedia-d people, whose names appear in at least 25 languages. His team then “cleaned the data,” by sorting the 11,000 or so names by place of birth, primary profession, and so on. They were also careful to delete what Hidalgo calls “a flavor of the month,” like Psy, the K-Pop phenomenon behind Gangnam Style. “He didn’t break the barrier of time. It was something very ephemeral,” Hidalgo says.

So how do they determine who’s more famous than the next person? The key, Hidalgo says, is whether a celebrity has had a lasting impact on the world. The world’s most famous architect is Imhotep, for instance, because the Egyptian Pyramids have stood the test of time. (Steve Jobs, incidentally, is the most famous American designer.)

Hidalgo is quick to point out that Pantheon’s take on who’s more famous than whom is not really the point. “The rankings are not meaningful or significant,” Hidalgo says. Instead, it’s the broader strokes that are revealing: “If you look at mathematicians, Hungary and France have produced a disproportionately large number of mathematicians. Argentina and Brazil are very much based on soccer players. In Chile, you have politicians and a nice group of writers.” Such information could be useful for teachers and students, Hidalgo says, but also for a policymaker who wants to argue in favor of supplying a certain sector with more resources.

Pantheon also illuminates how communication technology has impacted culture over the years. “Science emerges after the printing press. Famous soccer players, after televisions. And certain musicians come after the development of the radio,” Hidalgo says, explaining why Bob Marley is ranked as the most famous musician, when the most famous person in other categories is usually from a much older time period. Consider the design category (which takes up a sliver of real estate compared with other professional categories seen in Pantheon). Will the era of famous designers finally take off now that more of the world has Internet access, and people are becoming more savvy about design? Hidalgo speculates this will happen once people become more data- and graphics-literate. “The development of the data visualization engines allows people to access information in a lot of ways,” he says. “It’s how you should present data to the global community.”


Get lost in the maze that is Pantheon, here.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.