My Father was x

I recently bought The Joy of x by Steven Strogatz for my mother1. While talking to her about the book, I mentioned that Strogatz is my academic grandfather, since Michelle Girvan was Strogatz's graduate student and is now one of my coadvisors. My mom found it strange that I knew my advisor's advisor, and asked around my family to find out if any of them knew their lineage. My brother (PhD chemistry), sister (PhD molecular biology), and father (PhD chemistry) all did not2.

This got me to thinking if knowledge of academic lineages varies by discipline. The hypothesis I immediately proposed to my mom was that in mathematics, nearly everything we use is named after one mathematician or another: Fourier and Laplace transforms, Hilbert, Banach, and Sobolev spaces, Kolmogorov complexity, Cauchy random variables, Poisson and Markov processes... You get the idea3. Does this happen more frequently in mathematics than in other disciplines?4 Physicists certainly have their fair share of namesake results: Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, Bose-Einstein condensates. The chemists have theirs, too: Hückel's rule for aromatic molecules... Okay, I can't think of quite as many chemistry examples, and most of the ones I can think of are really results from physics (Hund's rule, the Pauli Exclusion Principle, etc.). The namesakes from biology are even harder to come by: off the top of my head, I can only think of the Krebs cycle.

Of course, mathematicians have taken this game a step further and created the Mathematical Genealogy Project. Using this, I can trace my lineage as far back as Lionel Simeon Marks, who did his PhD thesis on 'An Analytical Study of the Initial Condensation in Steam Engines.' That sounds about right.

Ideally, one (i.e. a mathematician) would like to trace their lineage back to Euler, Gauss, Newton, or, since I just finished reading a great book about statistics, Poisson, Laplace, or Fourier. To the best of my knowledge, the most thoroughly researched mathematical genealogy at the University of Maryland is David Levermore's. His students have the fortune of knowing, in exacting detail, where they come from mathematically.

A person might argue that mathematicians worry about these things because of their big egos5. Which may be true. But it's nice to be reminded every once in a while that this grand, intricate object that we've inherited was patched together by a bunch of men and women over the course of thousands of years.

  1. I haven't read the book yet, though I did very much enjoy Strogatz's series at the New York Times that this book is largely based off.

  2. Can you see why my father calls me the black sheep of my family?

  3. I imagine the reason for the prevalence of namesakes in math is that we have to name the objects we create something, and giving them the name of their inventor seems as reasonable as any other naming scheme. Compare this to, say, the classification of living things. Hm. That might be a place in biology where lots of scientists' names show up. Which also reminds me that many chemists' names show up in the Periodic Table.

  4. This would make a very interesting research topic. One that I will most likely not pursue in the near future.

  5. To which I would respond: but why don't the physicists name more things after themselves, then?