Soon after Barack Obama's inauguration, Dee Myers of Vanity Fair posited that the new president was effectively the most famous living person in history [source: Myers]. She largely attributed that theory to the power of the World Wide Web, which people around the world used to track his path to the White house. His compelling story has international roots, which broadened his appeal, she argued.
Myers' assertion isn't based on any verifiable statistics. However, Eric Schulman, an astronomer and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, has studied how to measure fame for more than a decade. He also agrees that Barack Obama has achieved universal fame, possibly rivaling anyone else before him [source: Schulman].
In an effort to measure fame quantitatively -- something that has never previously been accomplished -- Schulman relies on Google. According to his research, the modern formula for fame boils down to the number of relevant search engine returns a person's name gets, compared to the search engine traffic of a logarithmic unit of fame (dBHa). That fame unit is derived from the Google results of a celebrity who has enjoyed a constant amount of fame over a long period of time [source: Schulman]. In 1999, when Schulman started his fame research, that unit was Monica Lewinsky. But considering that Lewinsky's fame stock has dropped significantly in recent years, Schulman readjusted his calculations and came up with Beatles guitarist George Harrison.
That switch from Lewinsky to Harrison also highlights the time-sensitive aspect of fame. Many people enjoy their clichéd "15 minutes" these days -- think YouTube personalities -- but their notoriety quickly fizzles out. Therefore, the most famous among us must also remain iconic across generations.
In February 2009, fellow Beatle John Lennon performed quite well in Google compared to Harrison, placing him in the second place of all-time A-list celebrities [source: Schulman]. And the only person to top Lennon in Schulman's experiment? None other than Jesus Christ.
But Schulman's research is limited, since it leaves out Muhammad and Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who complete the triumvirate of the most famous men in the annals of history. Going back to Google, Jesus still edges the other two, receiving around 45 million hits, compared with 36.8 million for Muhammad and 24.6 million for Buddha.
As for John Lennon, more than 40 years after claiming popularity over Jesus, the late star only clocks in at 14 million Google returns. In history's fame game, it looks like The Beatles didn't overtake religion after all.