Some Day, It Had to Happen — A Mathematical Genealogy


It was inevitable, mathematicians being what they are. Some of the more obsessive members of the Mathematics Department of the University of North Dakota somehow got funding for the Mathematics Genealogy Project, a web-based family tree that lets you trace the ancestry of your favourite mathematician. Even if that person is your calculus professor.

Now a word of explanation before you go rabbiting off to uncover murderers or ministers in the family tree of your much-loathed calculus prof. In the field of mathematics, as in most academic disciplines, students studying for graduate degrees must write a thesis based on original research. To this end, the mathematics department assigns them an academic supervisor to  guide them through their research, teaching the harried neophytes both the fundamentals and the niceties of the discipline, much as a parent nudges a child into adulthood.

This arrangement is fraught with both prizes and perils. Graduate student lounges echo with complaints about slave-driving or negligent advisors. But some students — myself included — were lucky enough to fall in with competent, thoughtful supervisors who left an intellectual stamp on their professional offspring.

So every mathematician has a parent. And that parent had a parent. And that parent . . . well, you get the idea. There’s a big family tree out there waiting to be explored. And some of the leaves on that tree are famous. If you have a graduate degree in mathematics (especially the pure variety) or if a friendly advisor steered you through an undergraduate thesis, the Mathematics Genealogy Project lets you trace your ancestry. (It even lets you add new data, although it restricts new information to those who earned a doctoral degree.)

For example, the professor who had the task of steering me through my master’s degree was an affable, creative man who reminded me of the character “Norm” on the 1990s sit-com Cheers. Norm liked his beer just as much as he liked talking about graph theory or linear algebra.

So I put Norm’s name into the project search engine and began tracing his ancestry. Norm had received his Ph.D. in 1962 with a dissertation on matrix theory. The data base revealed just one descendent, a woman who had got her Ph.D. in 1995. Missing data there. As a master’s student I did not expect to see my own name there, but I knew of a least two other students who received Ph.D.s under Norm.

Then I began following Norm’s ancestry. His supervisor had earned a Ph.D. in 1947 under the supervision of a Swedish mathematician well-known enough to rate a Wikipedia entry. Two more steps back and I hit the lode.

Norm’s “great-great-grandfather” was a professor at Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University. This professor’s offspring included not only Norm’s “great-grandfather” but three names I recognized. Paul Erdos (whose brilliance was matched only by his — there is no other word for this — weirdness), George Polya (author of a famous book on problem-solving) and, gasp, John von Neumann, best known today for devising the fundamental architecture of the computer you are reading this on, but whose other work is breath-taking. Check out these people on Wikipedia. My own Erdos number is 2.

Norm’s “four-greats grandfather” was Karl Weierstraß (Weierstrass, if you like) a name familiar in the field of analysis. The brilliant but doomed Sofia Kovalevskaya was working with Weierstrass at the time of her too-early death. Alice Munro’s not-so-short short story “Too Much Happiness” is a profound and touching account of her last months.

Weierstrass also supervised Georg Cantor, who invented set theory and was the first to study the nature of infinities, establishing the counter-intuitive fact that there is more than one infinity.

Two more steps back we come to Norm’s six-greats grandfather, Carl Friedrich Gauss (177-1855). If you haven’t heard of Gauss, check him out. His work in everything was seminal.

Here, I stopped counting and just clicked away. The paths spread, since some people had more than one advisor. But going back I discovered famous names (Leibniz, yes, but not Newton) in my mathematical family tree.

The genealogy project is incomplete. My own Ph.D. is in biostatistics, only tangential to mathematics. My Ph.D. advisor (and one of his students) are an isolated group. I don’t know who his supervisor was. Maybe I should get in touch with him. I do not appear in the project data.

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About aharmlessdrudge

Way back during the late Bronze age -- actually it was the 1950s -- all of us in high school had to take a vocational test to determine our interests and, supposedly, our future careers. I cannot remember the outcome, but I do recall one question that gave me pause. "If you were to win a Nobel prize, would it be in literature or in physics?" I hesitated over the question: although I enjoyed mathematics and science more than English class, I did have a couple of unfinished (and very bad) novels hidden away at home. I cannot remember what I chose back then, but the dilemma followed me to university, where I switched from mathematics to English and -- after a five-year stint in journalism -- back to mathematics. I recently retired as a professor of statistics. Retirement. What a good chance to revive my literary ambitions. I have finished a novel -- more about that in good time -- and a rubble of drafts of articles about mathematics and statistics is taking up space on my hard disk.
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