Science & Technology

Which Countries Give Us the Most World-Famous Magicians, Pirates, and Astronauts?

Where on Earth do famous people come from? You can find out on Pantheon, a fascinating data visualization tool from the MIT Media Lab. If your answer to our question was New York, you were right; that's the biggest producer of world-famous people. The second most common superstar hometown is Paris — then London, Los Angeles, and Rome. But how are data scientists measuring this, exactly? And can we get more specific about what these famous people are famous for?

What Does "World-Famous" Mean?

The team over at Pantheon isn't interested in "famous" as measured by social media followers or Oscar afterparty invites. Being famous means, to them, someone who has shaped "global culture" — a term that requires a little explanation.

Culture itself is a huge and confusing concept. Back in 2014, it was Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year — people looked it up a lot, perhaps because it has multiple commonplace meanings. At Pantheon, they're interested in culture as "a particular way of life" (as in "Spanish culture" or "corporate culture"). But because they're interested in global culture throughout history, they're really interested in a million particular ways of life — or, as they put it, everything humans have ever shared with each other "through non-genetic means."

This sounds ... incredibly broad. Luckily, they're also focused on the key figures who've shaped, or produced, global culture, and they've defined that set of people pretty specifically: anyone with a Wikipedia page in more than 25 different languages. (If that sounds like a tall order, keep in mind that Michelangelo has Wikipedia pages in 158 languages.) As of 2016, that meant the team was looking at 11,341 people, each of whom they categorized by profession and birthplace.

Their emphasis on Wikipedia as a source, and birthplace as a location marker, obviously produced certain biases. Wikipedia is pretty reliable, sure, but it's also vulnerable to inaccuracies and distortions. Linking people to their birthplaces also created some odd data points. It means that Che Guevara got categorized as "from" Argentina, for instance, though he's best-known as a Cuban revolutionary.

Overall, though, the Pantheon websites offer some interesting insights into the lives and locations of the world-famous.

The Origins of Pirates and Gymnasts

You can sift through Pantheon's data in various ways. You can filter by country, and find out the most common professions for a given country's notable people. The U.S. produces mostly actors, singers, and musicians; more than 50 percent of Argentina's notable people are soccer players; and Zimbabwe exports politicians and tennis players almost exclusively.

It's more fun to sort by profession, though. This lets us answer our title question: Which countries produce the most internationally-revered magicians, pirates, and astronauts? We're so glad you asked.

  • Magicians (4 total): Two of them come from the U.S. The other two come from Canada and Hungary. (The Hungarian one is Harry Houdini.)
  • Pirates (7 total): The majority of famous pirates hail from the U.K., but Poland and Greece have each produced a famous pirate, too.
  • Astronauts (31 total): Most astronauts come from the U.S., with Russia and China coming in second and third. (This one isn't a totally equitable fight, though, since you need to be in a country that invests in space exploration to even become an astronaut.)

Just for the heck of it, we looked at some more professions, too:

  • Engineers (40 total): They're most commonly from Russia and the U.K., though a fair few come from France and Germany, too.
  • Gymnasts (6 total): Two famous gymnasts — Olga Korbut and Vitaly Scherbo —come from Belarus, making it the world's premiere gymnastics hotspot! Who knew.
  • Religious figures (460 total): A full half of religious figures throughout history came from Italy. Even with Vatican City in Rome, that feels like a lot!
  • Mathematicians (157 total): With 29 of the world's most famous number crunchers, including Pascal, Poincaré, and Fermat, France is in the lead here.
  • Models (29 total): The United Kingdom lays claim to the world's most famous model, Twiggy, but is tied with the United States for most supermodels overall.

For more fun factoids, click around the Pantheon website. This is just the tip of the iceberg — you can make maps and scatterplots, and look at cities instead of countries. It turns out that Paris is a real breeding ground for philosophers!

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Find out how these celebrities landed on these lists in "I Didn't Get Where I Am ... : How the Rich and Famous Achieved Their Success" by Charlie Croker. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice April 5, 2019

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