Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Academic Genealogy

I think that I have mentioned in other posts in this blog that one of my hobbies is genealogy.  I am planning to write more on my family history someday (it's always fun to find a great-grandfather in the state penitentiary when doing a census search) but I wanted to talk a little today about my academic genealogy. 

When earning an graduate degree in an academic field, one normally had an advisor that mentors the students in their research.  So, you can trace back through time who your advisor's advisor was and so on.  Normally, a modern student has only one advisor unless their research is interdisciplinary or other reasons.  Therefore, unlike a normal family tree where each child has a mother and a father, an academic genealogy doesn't branch as much.

I have done some research in the past on my academic genealogy.  My doctoral advisor was Lee Samuel Finn at Penn State and his advisor was Kip Thorne at Caltech.  On my own, I was able to trace my academic genealogy back about 10 'generations'.

Recently, I found the Mathematics Genealogy Project (MGP).  This work by North Dakota State University tracks the academic genealogy of mathematicians both their 'ancestors' and their 'descendants'.  Lucky for me, physics is closely related to mathematics (after all, Newton did pioneer calculus in order to do his physics) and my immediate academic family is documented in the MGP.  I found my advisor and started moving back through my ancestors.  It was amazing going back in time like this!  My academic genealogy goes back through 7 centuries to the High Middle Ages (essentially the founding of universities in Europe) and spans the fields of physics, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, biology, medicine, philosophy and theology.  Before my academic great-grandfather all my 'ancestors' were educated in Europe, mostly in Germany, Austria, France and Italy.  And while this is not at all surprising, I am the only female in the tree (if you click on the poster sized image below, it will be a 6 MB JPEG; you can view the < 1 MB PDF here):

Warning: Clicking on this image will load a 6 MB JPEG.  Click here for the < 1 MB PDF.

Some of my academic ancestors of note (just the historically significant names I am familiar with):
  • Nicolas Copernicus - known for heliocentrism (a system where the Sun is the center of the solar system) which was in opposition the accepted geocentrism (a system where the Earth is stationary and the center of the Universe).
  • Christiaan Huygens - known as the first theoretical physicist, Huygens is also known for explaining Saturn's rings, wave theory and centrifugal force, among other things.
  • Jacob Bernoulli - known for discovering the mathematical constant e (2.71828...) among other mathematical contributions.
  • Johann Bernoulli - known for his development of infinitesimal calculus and other mathematical contributions
  • Leonhard Euler - mathematician and physicist who made contributions to many sub-fields including mathematical notation (e.g. using the Greek capital sigma as notation for summation), graphing and astronomy.
  • Joseph-Louis Lagrange - known for development of the calculus of variations and Lagrangian mechanics among other things.
  • Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier - known for the series approximation for discontinuous functions and related transformation that are both named after him, he also was the first to discover the greenhouse effect.
  • Siméon Denis Poisson - known for the Poisson distribution which described the probability of a regular event that has no memory (dependency) on the events that happened before the present, among many other contributions to mathematics and physics.
  • Johann Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet - mathematician credited with the modern formal definition of a function.
  • Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert - known for his contributions to fluid mechanics and testing for the convergence of a series, among other things.
  • Pierre-Simon Laplace - known for work in celestial mechanics (especially work concerning the stability of the orbits in the solar system), the dependence of the speed of sound on temperature, and was also the first to expound upon an object similar to a black hole, among many other things.
So, what does this illustrious heritage say about me?  NOTHING!  Even if you are mentored by the best, it is ultimately up to you to establish and prove yourself.  However, it is humbling to have any connection not only to history but to the science that I've been using for many years.

If you are interested in learning more about academic genealogies and why they are documented in the article "A Trace of Greatness" from the Times Higher Education (6 May 2010).