From Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in today’s NYT:
Roughly one in 2,058 American-born baby boomers were deemed notable enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry. About 30 percent made it through art or entertainment, 29 percent through sports, 9 percent through politics, and 3 percent through academia or science.
…Roughly one in 1,209 baby boomers born in California reached Wikipedia. Only one in 4,496 baby boomers born in West Virginia did. Roughly one in 748 baby boomers born in Suffolk County, Mass., which contains Boston, made it to Wikipedia. In some counties, the success rate was 20 times lower.
…I closely examined the top counties. It turns out that nearly all of them fit into one of two categories.
First, and this surprised me, many of these counties consisted largely of a sizable college town. Just about every time I saw a county that I had not heard of near the top of the list, like Washtenaw, Mich., I found out that it was dominated by a classic college town, in this case Ann Arbor, Mich. The counties graced by Madison, Wis.; Athens, Ga.; Columbia, Mo.; Berkeley, Calif.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Gainesville, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; and Ithaca, N.Y., are all in the top 3 percent.
Why is this? Some of it is probably the gene pool: Sons and daughters of professors and graduate students tend to be smart. And, indeed, having more college graduates in an area is a strong predictor of the success of the people born there.
But there is most likely something more going on: early exposure to innovation. One of the fields where college towns are most successful in producing top dogs is music. A kid in a college town will be exposed to unique concerts, unusual radio stations and even record stores. College towns also incubate more than their expected share of notable businesspeople.
African-Americans who grew up around Tuskegee did very well in achieving Wikipedia fame. Yet how much a state spends on education does not seem to matter. And this:
…there was another variable that was a strong predictor of Wikipedia entrants per birth: the proportion of immigrants. The greater the percentage of foreign-born residents in an area, the higher the proportion of people born there achieving something notable. If two places have similar urban and college populations, the one with more immigrants will produce more notable Americans.
The piece is fascinating throughout, and you will note that Seth is a Google data scientist with a Ph.d. in economics from Harvard. His other writings are here. Some of you may wish to see my book What Price Fame?