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12/28/2018 03:14 pm ET

The Most Famous Person To Die In 2018, According To Data Science

By our definition, more celebrities died in 2018 than in any year since at least 2010.
Former President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain hold a news conference in July 2008 at the Bush family home in Ke
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Former President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain hold a news conference in July 2008 at the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

As we wave goodbye to a fairly hideous 2018, we also have an opportunity to reflect on the famous people who won’t be joining us in 2019, the lucky bastards.

But we’re not here to talk about the lives they led, the work they did, the civilians they killed with GBU-27 strikes on an air-raid shelter. We’re here to talk about their fame. Specifically, we’re here to determine who was the most famous person to die in 2018 and whether more famous people died this year than in previous years.

The first problem when building a model for this is defining the parameters: Who exactly counts as a celebrity? Sure, we could simply pick whoever we remember dying, but this is science — which is why we turned to every serious academic’s favorite tool: Wikipedia.

Wikipedia gives us a relatively neutral definition of a “celebrity.” To get your own Wikipedia page, you need to be considered “notable” by the site’s thousands of editors and contributors. And because each page will have gone through a decision process, this gives us a baseline of sorts — an authority to point at to determine whether a lower-league sports person or a reality TV star really counts as a celebrity.

Wikipedia also, helpfully, lists deaths in neatly organized categories, too.

So having crunched this data, we can now say that as of Dec. 12, 6,576 famous people have died. This is actually a record if you compare to the 345th day into each year for the previous seven years, and it reveals that 2018 is the most devastating year for celebrities in recent times. Even more so than 2016, during which it often felt as if beloved celebrities — Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, Prince — were dropping dead every day.

Obviously there are a bunch of caveats and health warnings that apply to this sort of data. It inevitably reflects the English-speaking world. And it is impossible to say how much Wikipedia editing activity has changed over time — although focusing on 2010 onward makes a degree of intuitive sense to us, as by then, Wikipedia was already expansive and was being updated in real time. It also reflects Wikipedia’s own biases: Let’s face it, if a minor character from “Star Trek” dies, you just know they’re going to have a large Wikipedia presence.

Still, this feels like a pretty good measure of the state of celebrity death. The slow increase, over the eight years studied, may hint at the slow increase in the sheer quantity of celebrities over time.

What this graph doesn’t tell us, however, is who specifically was the most famous person to die in 2018.

To calculate this, we need a means to measure an individual’s level of fame. And this is where we can borrow a trick from Google. The search engine ranks results by counting the number of pages linking into a given page — the theory being that the more pages linking there, the more authoritative it is. And using this Wikipedia data, we can do something similar: We can count the number of other Wikipedia pages linking to the dead person. The bigger the number, the bigger the impact that person had on our world.

For example, 3,012 other Wikipedia pages link to Stan Lee’s page, indicating his enormous influence on comics, publishing, movies, TV and culture in general. By contrast, only 28 other pages link to the page for actor Al Matthews — who died this year, and who is best known for playing Gunnery Sergeant Apone in “Aliens” — suggesting he is less well-known.

When we weight by notoriety, then, here are the 20 most famous people to have died this year — at least up until Dec. 12 (there are still a few more days for the queen of England to catch a cold).

 

Name

Date of death

Who?

Score

1

George H. W. Bush

Nov. 30

Former president

5800

2

John McCain

Aug. 25

Senator

4575

3

Aretha Franklin

Aug. 16

Musician

3063

4

Stan Lee

Nov. 12

Comics legend

3012

5

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Aug. 16

Former Indian prime minister

2049

6

Kofi Annan

Aug. 18

Former UN sec’y general

1932

7

Sir Charles Kao

Sept. 23

Scientist

1543

8

Ursula K. Le Guin

Jan. 22

Author

1540

9

Stephen Hawking

March 14

Scientist

1513

10

Paul Spudis

Aug. 29

Scientist

1502

11

Burt Reynolds

Sept. 6

Actor

1288

12

Billy Graham

Feb. 21

Evangelist

1167

13

Harlan Ellison

June 28

Author

1163

14

Neil Simon

Aug. 26

Playwright

1117

15

Paul Allen

Oct. 15

Microsoft co-founder

1064

16

Willie McCovey

Oct. 31

Baseball player

1056

17

Avicii

April 20

Musician

986

18

Cecil Taylor

April 5

Musician

904

19

Randy Weston

Sept. 1

Musician

883

20

Philip Roth

May 22

Author

876

 

Unsurprisingly, George H.W. Bush is at the top of the list. Sir Charles Kao is perhaps the most unfamiliar name on the list, but he definitely deserves his place: He’s the father of fiber-optic communication, which is how you’re able to read this thing you’re reading at the moment. Philip Roth was eulogized and think-pieced all across the media, but here he is several spots below another author, Ursula K. Le Guin, the great sci-fi Grand Master, suggesting Wikians’ tastes may not always line up with those of the prevailing media culture.

Plotting these weighted scores on a graph also reveals how similar 2018 was to 2016. 2016 might have taken Bowie and Prince, but love ’em or loathe ’em, there’s no denying that H.W. and John McCain were big hitters, too.

So why didn’t it feel this way? Why didn’t it feel as if we were constantly in mourning? One possibility: In 2018, fewer really famous people died than in 2016, and indeed, 2017.

If you filter the pool of dead celebrities to remove everyone with fewer than 500 other Wiki pages linking to them — which gets rid of all of the obscure Bulgarian footballers and minor British historians — the results look like this:

In other words, while more celebrities died in 2018 than in any other year since 2010 (at least according to this methodology), slightly fewer really, really famous people did.

James O’Malley tweets as @Psythor. This piece is the 2018 edition of a series that first began on Gizmodo UK.

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