David Bernstein has been taking a few pot-shots at Oliver Wendell Holmes, suggesting that his reputation has declined. (This is part of David’s role as a footsoldier in the battle to rehabilitate Lochner vs New York as one of the Great Supreme Court Decisions.) I have no view one way or the other about Holmes, though I’m surprised that David didn’t throw in the fact that one of Holmes’ last clerks was Alger Hiss. Anyway, I bring this up because I use Holmes as an example in my undergraduate social theory class, thanks to a comment made to me ages ago by Mark Kleiman. The goal is to convey to my students that the modern world has come into being in an astonishingly brief period of time. But they think of the 1980s as essentially equivalent to the Paleolithic, so I need a something corresponding to the inverse of Douglas Adams’ line that “You may think it’s a long way down the street to the Chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Holmes provides it. He died in 1935, and so there are still many people alive today who knew him, or at least shook hands with him. Holmes was born in 1841, and as a boy he met John Quincy Adams, who was born in 1767. So (I tell my students—maybe I should chew on a pipe when I say this, for added effect) you are just three handshakes away from a man born before the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, and arguably before the Industrial Revolution, as well. There must be many other examples. How far might we go back today with three or four handshakes?
Update: Post edited for elementary arithmetic.