Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (2003)

By Duncan J. Watts (W. W. Norton)

Duncan J. Watts, one of the principal architects of network theory, sets out to explain the innovative research he and other scientists are spearheading to create a blueprint of our connected planet.

You may be only six degrees away from Kevin Bacon, but would he let you borrow his car? It depends on the structures within the network that links you. When the power goes out, when we find that a stranger knows someone we know, when dot-com stocks soar in price, networks are evident. In Six Degrees, sociologist Duncan Watts examines networks like these: what they are, how they’re being studied, and what we can use them for. To illustrate the often complicated mathematics that describe such structures, Watts uses plenty of examples from life, without which this book would quickly move beyond a general science readership. Small chapters make each thought-provoking conclusion easy to swallow, though some are hard to digest. For instance, in a short bit on “coercive externalities,” Watts sums up sociological research showing that:

“Conversations concerning politics displayed a consistent pattern …. On election day, the strongest predictor of electoral success was not which party an individual privately supported but which party he or she expected would win.”

Six Degrees attempts to help readers understand the new and exciting field of networks and complexity. While considerably more demanding than a general book like The Tipping Point, it offers readers a snapshot of a riveting moment in science, when understanding things like disease epidemics and the stock market seems almost within our reach.

–Therese Littleton,