Sunday, December 15, 2013

TIME Magazine: Who’s Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in History

Who’s Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in History

A data-driven ranking. Plus, have former TIME People of the Year been predictive?

Who’s bigger: Washington or Lincoln? Hitler or Napoleon? Charles Dickens or Jane Austen? That depends on how you look at it.

When we set out to rank the significance of historical figures, we decided to not approach the project the way historians might, through a principled assessment of their individual achievements. Instead, we evaluated each person by aggregating millions of traces of opinions into a computational data-centric analysis. We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value.

Significance is related to fame but measures something different. Forgotten U.S. President Chester A. Arthur (who we rank as the 499th most significant person in history) is more historically significant than young pop singer Justin Bieber (currently ranked 8633), even though he may have a less devoted following and lower contemporary name recognition. Historically significant figures leave statistical evidence of their presence behind, if one knows where to look for it, and we used several data sources to fuel our ranking algorithms, including Wikipedia, scanned books and Google n-grams.

To fairly compare contemporary figures like Britney Spears against the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, we adjusted for the fact that today’s stars will fade from living memory over the next several generations. Intuitively it is clear that Britney Spears’ mindshare will decline substantially over the next 100 years, as people who grew up hearing her are replaced by new generations. But Aristotle’s reputation will be much more stable because this transition occurred long ago. The reputation he has now is presumably destined to endure. By analyzing traces left in millions of scanned books, we can measure just how fast this decay occurs, and correct for it.

We don’t expect you will agree with everyone chosen for the top 100, or exactly where they are placed. But we trust you will agree that most selections are reasonable: a quarter of them are philosophers or major religious figures, plus eight scientists/inventors, thirteen giants in literature and music, and three of the greatest artists of all time. We have validated our results by comparing them against several standards: published rankings by historians, public polls, even in predicting the prices of autographs, paintings, and baseball cards. Since we analyzed the English Wikipedia, we admittedly measured the interests and judgments of primarily the Western, English-speaking community. Our algorithms also don’t include many women at the very top: Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) [at number 13] is the top ranked woman in history according to our analysis. This is at least partially due to women being underrepresented in Wikipedia.


Each year since 1927, TIME Magazine has selected an official Person of the Year, recognizing an individual who “has done the most to influence the events of the year.” Our rankings provide a way to see how well these selections have stood up over time. Adolf Hitler [7] proves to be the most significant Person of the Year ever. Albert Einstein [19] was the most significant modern individual never selected for the annual honor, though TIME did name him Person of the Century in 1999. Elvis Presley [69] is the highest ranked figure that has been completely dissed: no author or artist has ever so been honored.

The least significant Person of the Year proves to be Harlow Curtice [224326], the president of General Motors for five years during the 1950s who increased capital spending in a time of recession, which helped spur a recovery of the American economy. Other obscure selections include Hugh Samuel “Iron Pants” Johnson [32927], who Franklin Roosevelt appointed to head the depression-era National Recovery Administration, and fired less than a year later. John Sirica [47053] was the District Court Judge who ordered President Nixon to turn over tape recordings in the Watergate Scandal. David Ho [66267] is credited with developing the combination therapy that provided the first effective treatment for AIDS. His contributions to human health arguably deserve a better significance rank than our algorithms gave him here.

The 100 Most Significant Figures in History

1 Jesus
2 Napoleon
3 Muhammad
4 William Shakespeare
5 Abraham Lincoln
6 George Washington
7 Adolf Hitler
8 Aristotle
9 Alexander the Great
10 Thomas Jefferson
11 Henry VIII of England
12 Charles Darwin
13 Elizabeth I of England
14 Karl Marx
15 Julius Caesar
16 Queen Victoria
17 Martin Luther
18 Joseph Stalin
19 Albert Einstein
20 Christopher Columbus
21 Isaac Newton
22 Charlemagne
23 Theodore Roosevelt
24 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
25 Plato
26 Louis XIV of France
27 Ludwig van Beethoven
28 Ulysses S. Grant
29 Leonardo da Vinci
30 Augustus
31 Carl Linnaeus
32 Ronald Reagan
33 Charles Dickens
34 Paul the Apostle
35 Benjamin Franklin
36 George W. Bush
37 Winston Churchill
38 Genghis Khan
39 Charles I of England
40 Thomas Edison
41 James I of England
42 Friedrich Nietzsche
43 Franklin D. Roosevelt
44 Sigmund Freud
45 Alexander Hamilton
46 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
47 Woodrow Wilson
48 Johann Sebastian Bach
49 Galileo Galilei
50 Oliver Cromwell
51 James Madison
52 Gautama Buddha
53 Mark Twain
54 Edgar Allan Poe
55 Joseph Smith, Jr.
56 Adam Smith
57 David, King of Israel
58 George III of the United Kingdom
59 Immanuel Kant
60 James Cook
61 John Adams
62 Richard Wagner
63 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
64 Voltaire
65 Saint Peter
66 Andrew Jackson
67 Constantine the Great
68 Socrates
69 Elvis Presley
70 William the Conqueror
71 John F. Kennedy
72 Augustine of Hippo
73 Vincent van Gogh
74 Nicolaus Copernicus
75 Vladimir Lenin
76 Robert E. Lee
77 Oscar Wilde
78 Charles II of England
79 Cicero
80 Jean-Jacques Rousseau
81 Francis Bacon
82 Richard Nixon
83 Louis XVI of France
84 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
85 King Arthur
86 Michelangelo
87 Philip II of Spain
88 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
89 Ali, founder of Sufism
90 Thomas Aquinas
91 Pope John Paul II
92 René Descartes
93 Nikola Tesla
94 Harry S. Truman
95 Joan of Arc
96 Dante Alighieri
97 Otto von Bismarck
98 Grover Cleveland
99 John Calvin
100 John Locke

Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward are the authors of Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank, Cambridge University Press, 2013. The views expressed are solely their own. 


Anonymous said...

1001 Theary Seng
102 Jendhamuni

Anonymous said...

Seriously, Nimrod, the Rebel should be among the ranking; because he started the rebellion after a fresh start on life on this side of the World Wide Flood in Genesis account. God wiped clean the slate of humanity wickedness, yet we read of Nimrod picking up the baton of rebellion brought humanity into a state of rebellion against her Creator by worshiping other gods.

The course of human atrocities could be traced back to this rebellion at the Tower of Babel,(confusion). Yes, when man decide for his future without God in it, confusion ensues.

Today, rebellion and confusion seem to be the norm of society.