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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
31 January 2003

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

In 1968, artist Andy Warhol said: "In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes." That's become a cliche, but I want to take it straight. Back then, the world population was about 3.5 billion. Now it's almost 6.3 billion, so do we only get 15 x 3.5 / 6.3 = 8.3 minutes of fame? Offhand, there's only time for 365.25 x 24 x 60 / 15 = 35,064 people a year to get their 15 minutes. Make any assumptions you want about fame and population, but spell it out and show your work How much fame can we really expect? Does the DMS Talent Show count?

  Treebeard's World Fame Clock
World Population: people
Your Moment of Fame: minutes, adjusted to 15 minutes each in 1968

My World Fame Clock uses modified Javascript code from It figures minutes of fame using the US Census Bureau 1968 world population estimate of 3,558,100,709. You can watch your picoseconds of fame tick away! Of course fame is not that simple. How many people can be world famous at the same time? Are fame and notoriety and celebrity and authority the same thing?

Here's a simple questionnaire about fame that I'll give to my students at school. You can also do this here on the Web if you have email support on your computer or network. This is a primative email form, and you may get an ugly message from Outlook; but I think it's harmless.

  1. Do you want to be world famous? That is: popular, well-known, or widely recognized for your accomplishments, activities, abilities, expertise, looks, opinions, and/or ideas? (pick one)
  2. Why did you give that answer?
  3. How likely is it that you will get your 15 minutes of fame? (pick one)
  4. What would you most like to be famous for, no matter who you are now?
  5. Given the talents you have, what would you like to be famous for?
  6. If you become famous, how would you use your fame?
  7. If you could have dinner with any two living people, who would you invite?
  8. What if you could have dinner with any two people from any time in history?

Did Andy Warhol really say that? Where and when?
What else is slipping away as the world population grows?

With 6.3 billion people on the planet, with an average lifespan of 75 years, we can each be famous for 75 x 365.25 x 24 x 60 x 60 / 6.3 billion = 0.38 second. We can each have our 15 minutes of fame if we share the moment with about 2,400 other people around the world. Fame is a slippery notion that includes respect, celebrity, and notoriety. Is total fame limited, so that a few increase their share at the expense of the rest of us? Maybe it's enough to be famous for 15 people if they are the right people? I'm sure the real question isn't how much fame we can each expect, but food and dignity.


I started this stumper with the last line of the answer already in mind. Fame is silly, but food and dignity are more important, and population effects them both. Here's the rest of my World Clock (modified from Javascript code at

World Population: people, and growing.
Your Moment of Fame: minutes, adjusted to 15 minutes each in 1968
World Productive Land: acres, and shrinking
Home Space: acres per person

Different assumptions give different answers to this stumper, but they are remarkably close. I ask my DMS students to show their work and units, so I will too:

   world population = 6.3 billion people
   average lifespan = 75 years

                        365.25 day   24 hour   60 min   60 sec
            75 years x  ---------- x ------- x ------ x ------
                          1 year      1 day    1 hour    1 min        second
   fame   = -------------------------------------------------- = 0.38 ------
                              6,300,000,000 people                    person

                     60 sec
            15 min x ------
                     1 min          
   shared = ---------------- = 2,368 people
              0.38 ------

Different assumptions give different answers. As I write this, the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) estimates that the world population is 6,214,891,000 and...

Being in the same order of magnitude is close enough for this project. Note that population is rising and arable land is shrinking. A lot seems to depend on increasing productivity, and that is not automatic. This is a silly stumper that grows profound as you think about... food rather than fame. That's the point.

I gave my questionnaire to my students at school with ten minutes of work time. The results don't mean much, but they are a slice of life from middle school kids smart enough not to take it too seriously. I massaged their answers into my own categories. Many kids gave multiple answers or none at all, so don't bother adding up the counts.

1.Do you want to be world famous?(count)
  Don't Care20
3.How likely is it that you will get your 15 minutes of fame?
  For Sure3
  Somewhat Likely12
  Not Likely16
  Not A Chance1
  Don't Care1
4+5.What would you most like to be famous for?
  Team Sports (baseball, soccor, etc.)19
  Solo Sports (surfing, skateboarding, etc.)19
  Music & Art49
  Science & Technology5
6.If you become famous, how will you use your fame?
  For myself...26
  For others...29
7.If you could have dinner with any two living people, who would you invite?
   (25 names repeated; 57 unique.)  
  TV and Movies56
  Book Authors17
  Music & Art12
  World Movers11
8.If you could have dinner with any two people from any time in history?
   (21 names repeated; 31 unique.)  
  World Movers60
  Music & Art22
  TV and Movies10
  Book Authors10

Draw your own conclusions. I think it's interesting that World Movers and TV and Movies switch places in the ratings between life and history. I'm impressed how many submitted names are unique. Fame is fleeting... and expensive, so get it while you can? Other things matter more in the long run...

Here are some Web links for more research about fame and food:

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