In 2016 hundreds of famous people died. David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, George Michael, Vera Rubin, and Thomas Schelling, are just a few names on this list. But was 2016 a particularly bad year? Or will 2017 be "worse"?
Many people think that 2016 was particularly bad, but data tells us that it is not an exception. In fact, we should expect more famous people to die in 2017 than in 2016. Why? The answer is simple: because the number of famous people has increased over time.
Of course there are a few caveats you may be considering, such as: who qualifies as famous? Or, is the increasing number of famous people just a consequence of global population growth?
To answer the first question, here we use a simple definition of fame that we can implement using data. We define someone as famous if we can read about them in many languages. How many languages? 20 or more to be exact. That is, we focus on the 29,421 people who was present in more than 20 Wikipedia language editions as of February, 2016.
Of course this data has its limitations. Trust us, we have thought about those extensively. Nevertheless, the number of languages a biography has in Wikipedia is a scientifically validated, yet simple and imperfect measure of a person's fame or memorability (since Wikipedia is a form of cultural memory). Consider the singer David Bowie. In Wikipedia you can read about him in 104 different languages. How about the actor Gene Wilder? 84. And the economist Thomas Schelling? In 48. Certainly, this does not mean that Bowie's work was more, or less important, than that of Schelling. It simple means that more Wikipedians (and probably more people) are aware of Bowie's songs than of Schelling's theories (which is reasonable, given the global popularity of some of Bowie's songs).
The second question was whether the number of famous people has increased simply because the population of the world has increased. Our data shows that this is not the case. For centuries, the growth in famous people has been outpacing that of global population. As you can see in this paper and in this short talk, the number of famous people born in a given year used to be a fraction of global population prior to the invention of printing, and also, for the 200 years after printing (although it was a larger fraction). Since the late seventeenth century, however, the number of famous people born in each year has been proportional to the square of global population. That is, the number of births of famous people, divided by the population of the world at that time, has been increasing linearly over time. Moreover, that proportionality constant has increased with the introduction of new communication technologies. The slope that emerged with the popularization of shorter forms of printing, like journals and newspapers in the late seventeenth century, increased with the introduction of new communication technologies, like film, radio, and television. So in the twentieth century we produced famous people at a rate we never did before.
So now that we have cleared out these caveats, we can sink into the data and look at how many famous people we expect should die in 2017.
Figure 1 shows the number of people with a presence in more than 20 language editions of Wikipedia who have died each year since the year 2000. This number has increased linearly from 86 in the year 2000 to 195 in 2015. In 2016, actually, we observe that less famous people died than expected. So what may be causing our feeling of perceiving more deaths?
Ronen S, Goncalves B, Hu KZ, Vespignani A, Pinker S, Hidalgo CA, Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (2014), 10.1073/pnas.1410931111