Social convergence

I’ve had some amazing moments of social serendipity lately. Call it the “small world” phenomenon or six degrees of separation minus most of the degrees, but frankly it is a bit odd. And, even though I’ve recently joined LinkedIn to explore my network of professional contacts once-, twice-, and thrice-removed, technology hasn’t contributed at all to what’s been going on.

Last week at the Special Olympics basketball tourney I wrote about I met a mom of one of the participants, a woman named Alison Leland. She was reading the New York Times in the bleachers so, this being middle-class Texas, I immediately knew she wasn’t like most of the other families there. Turns out, Ms. Leland is the wife of the late Texas congressman Mickey Leland. I only knew a bit about Mickey Leland: the causes he championed, the foes he made, the way he died. Forward a few days to New York City where I was meeting with some of the staff of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture and where, just for conversation’s sake, I mentioned this small world encounter with Ms. Leland. The team looked at me and said, “You know, the idea for this museum was Mickey Leland’s.” Hmm, small world.

This week I also learned about a computer scientist doing some interesting work in Arabic machine translation who one of my colleagues holds in very high regard. Her name is Violetta Cavalli-Sforza, a distinctive name to be sure and one that rang a bell. Now, I’m not certain of the connection, but it seems that she must be related (daughter?) to Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, the father of population genetics, author of the seminal History and Geography of Human Genes, and mentor of IBM’s globetrotting co-principal on the Genographic Project Spencer Wells — a project of which I am a part. Genetic forensics, indeed!

Then last night. A friend of ours lent my wife a book she loved to help us in our struggle to find a name for our third child, due in May. It was called The Baby Name Wizard by Laura Wattenberg. This of course is also the name of the much-lauded online app (also known as NameVoyager) from last year that dynamically maps the popularity of names over time and which was created by Martin Wattenberg, Laura’s husband, and an IBM colleague of mine. I had no idea there was a book to accompany the site.

What does this prove? If the connections between the pairs of people and myself in each of these examples was a little less random it might suggest a widening professional circle. But two of the three pairs intersect my personal life too.

Oh, how I’d love this web visualized. Martin, are you listening?

One response to “Social convergence”

  1. Ed Bice says :

    Hi John,
    Happy to have found your blog! Quite a seridipitous and unexpected route led me here, actually. I can confirm that Violetta is, indeed, the daughter of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Small world confirmed.