Math and Hollywood mix it up at MIT

Photo of Matt Damon writing mathematical symbols on a chalkboard.

Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. (© Miramax).

At this Friday’s MIT commencement, the featured speaker is Matt Damon: actor, filmmaker, co-founder of, and Cambridge MA native. In Good Will Hunting, Mr. Damon played an unrecognized math-genius janitor at MIT; and as a stranded astronaut in The Martian, his ability to assess, plan, improvise and survive is an extreme illustration of the MIT motto “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hand).

Damon’s fusion of Hollywood fame, humanitarian activism, and on-screen math/science wizardry should make for a memorable speech. In anticipation, let’s play with another mashup of mathematics and Hollywood: the Erdős–Bacon number. Per Wikipedia,

A person’s Erdős–Bacon number is the sum of one’s Erdős number—which measures the “collaborative distance” in authoring mathematical papers between that person and Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős—and one’s Bacon number—which represents the number of links, through roles in films, by which the individual is separated from American actor Kevin Bacon. The lower the number, the closer a person is to Erdős and Bacon, which reflects a small world phenomenon in academia and entertainment.

According to the Oakland University Erdős Number Project, MIT math professor Daniel Kleitman is an Erdős–Bacon star. Kleitman coauthored at least six papers with Erdős, giving him an Erdős number of 1. And since Minnie Driver, who appeared in Good Will Hunting, also appeared in Sleepers with Kevin Bacon, Kleitman has a Bacon number of 2. With the resulting Erdős–Bacon number of 3, he’s tied for the lead with University of Illinois professor Bruce Reznick.

How is Matt Damon’s Erdős–Bacon score? Well, Kleitman was an advisor and an extra in Good Will Hunting, so Damon’s Erdős number is 2. Meanwhile, Damon was in School Ties with Will Lyman, who appeared with Kevin Bacon in Mystic River, for a Bacon number of 2.  So Matt Damon’s Erdős–Bacon number is a quite respectable 4.

Had enough?  Check out these marquee OCW resources by Professor Kleitman.

[Concept and research for this post by Elizabeth DeRienzo, OCW Publication Manager]

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