Is it Time for the Gibbs Number?

Paul Erdos was an extremely prolific and mobile mathematician who has left a legacy in academia in the form of the Erdos Number — a count of your “academic distance” from Erdos. Anyone who published a paper with Erdos has an Erdos number of one (Erdos, himself, had a number of zero), people who published with anyone with an Erdos number of one have an Erdos number of two, and so on. It’s a point of pride for a mathematician or other researcher to have a small Erdos number.

There is no widely recognized equivalent of the Erdos number for the life sciences. Given the diversity in the field, it would be quite difficult to find a single person around whom to calculate a number. If we were to select a biological Erdos, he or she would have to be both well respected and heavily published with many different collaborators. Dobzhansky comes to mind in the field of evolutionary biology (I may be biased, as my Dobzhansky number is two), but I don’t think he’d work for all of biology.

I bring this up, in part, because of the recent publication of an opossum genome. Unlike many other eukaryotic genome projects, this one was not carried out at the Human Genome Sequencing Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The Baylor sequencing center was most recently involved in the macaque genome project, spearheaded by Richard Gibbs, director of the center. Gibbs also led the rat genome project, played a large role in the human genome project (e.g., this), and is a major player throughout the field of genomics. Given his highly productive career and the amount of collaborations involved in genomics, Gibbs seems like an ideal biology Erdos. And my Gibbs number is one, so, once again, I’m probably biased.

Now that I’ve shared my opinion, who do you think should be the Erdos of the life sciences? Should there even be an Erdos? Can there be an Erdos? Am I being stupid (nothing new), naive (nothing new), or just plain self centered (definitely nothing new)?


  1. #1 Amit
    May 14, 2007

    My Gibbs number is one as well! Not that it means that much because there were 170 other people on the Rhesus author list.

    I think Eric Lander would be another good candidate.

  2. #2 Jonathan Badger
    May 14, 2007

    I think Eric Lander would be another good candidate

    How about a Craig Venter number? Or, just showing how open-minded I am, a Claire Fraser number would work too.

  3. #3 TR Gregory
    May 14, 2007

    People, please — Make sure you check whether our gracious host has a paper with anyone you suggest first or it will defeat the whole purpose of the post!

  4. #4 Jonathan Badger
    May 14, 2007

    Of course that would be easier done if our host wasn’t (for his own good reasons I’m sure) going by an alias. Oh, I’m sure it wouldn’t be *that* hard to figure out who he is (other blog aliases have been deciphered), but it wouldn’t be too polite.

  5. #5 RPM
    May 14, 2007

    Woah, people. I’m not saying that the “Whomever number” be someone I’ve published with (or someone who’s published with someone I’ve published with). In fact, Gibbs may not be a good biology Erdos because he’s too stationary. Lander is another good suggestion along the same lines as Gibbs. But there’s gotta be some ideas from the non-genomics side.

  6. #6 John H. McDonald
    May 15, 2007

    In case anyone’s curious, our host has an Erdös number of at most 6; his six degrees of separation go:

    our host–Andy Clark–Sarah Tishkoff–me–Lidia Rejto–Janos Komlos–Paul Erdös.

    And yes, I really should quit wasting time and get back to grading papers.

  7. #7 Otter
    May 16, 2007

    I starting posting this at Slashdot, and decided it was worth bragging about here…

    According to this comment, some anonymous ScienceBlogs blogger has a maximum Erdos number of six. Given his boasting of a one for his newly-invented Ricard Gibbs number, that gives me a maximum Erdos number of eight.

    Now that I think about it, I probably have a shorter path than that … and a minute of research finds that my Erdos number is actually three, with a combined Bacon-Erdos sum of — whoah, six!!! That’s actually worth working into conversation! (I’d forgotten that both numbers decrease over time, and two recent movies have given me two different Bacon threes.) I’m going to crosspost this there…

    Incidentally, since when does anyone at ScienceBlogs discuss anything even this peripherally related to research? I thought it was all ranting against religion.

  8. #8 The Fun Guy
    May 16, 2007

    How about Larry Beauchat, one of the world’s premier food microbiologists? (http://www.ugacfs.org/faculty/beuchat.html) He’s had a long and distinguished career, and has an extremely varied list of co-authors.

  9. #9 David Pollock
    May 16, 2007

    It seems like you could argue this forever based on anecdote and personal bias. Maybe someone with too little to do could scan medline to get a co-author database, then apply the google algorithm to find the center. Could then easily modify it to titles with e.g., “evolution”, “molecular evolution”, “phylogenetics”, or “genomics” to find any field-specific “Erdos”.

  10. #10 Jonathan Eisen
    May 18, 2007

    Much as I love David Pollock, an algorithm removes all the fun from this. We should argue and argue about who it should be and then we should have some sort of contest/competition to selection someone. Although Dobzhansky would be fun, it might be better to have someone more recent. Here are three candidates.

    Sydney Brenner
    David Botstein
    Carl Woese

    I expect the staff at ScienceBlogs to set up some voting system for this. Thanks

  11. #11 apalazzo
    May 19, 2007

    As a Cell Biologist, I resent the focus on evolution biology/genomics. I would say that George Palade and Keith Porter are the Gold Standards in my field. As for others mentioned above … I could live with Brenner, although probably Watson/Crick would be better (Brenner would thus have a W/C number of 1).

  12. #12 Jonathan Eisen
    May 20, 2007

    I am unclear on the definition of a Cell Biologist here. I know Botstein now does mostly genomics, but in my definition I would consider him to have been a cell biologist. I picked these three because they cover many fields. Woese is known for his rRNA tree of life stuff but he did a lot in other areas of biology. Botstein covers quite a bit of ground actually (well, not ecology or evolution really, but I can survive that). Brenner covers a lot of ground too.

  13. #13 TR Gregory
    May 20, 2007

    My two cents (= 1.83 cents US):

    Brenner or Venter are good choices, if indeed we must have something like this (“for entertainment purposes only”, most obviously). Watson came to mind too, but there wouldn’t be much opportunity for new low numbers to be acquired in that case.

  14. #14 TR Gregory
    May 20, 2007

    (Because Watson isn’t publishing so much anymore)

  15. #15 Steven Salzberg
    August 22, 2007

    C’mon guys, if you’re going to have a number, you can’t pick someone controversial (like Venter). Pick someone that everyone can agree to, maybe it’ll catch on.

    I propose Charles Darwin. Of course no one living has a Darwin number of 1.

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