Academic genealogies

November 30, 2007

Yesterday I had an interesting discussion with a friend about his academic genealogy. In an academic family tree, one’s thesis advisor is one’s “parent”, and his advisor is one’s “grandparent”, and so on. I was inspired to look up my own academic genealogy, which I was able to do through the SPIRES database. The results were fascinating, and I thought I would share them. We’ll begin with my own humble self, and work backward:

• Craig Burrell (Toronto, 2004)
• Michael Luke (Harvard, 1991)
Howard Georgi (Yale, 1971)
\hspace{1cm}Dirac Medal 2000; Sakurai Prize 1995
• Charles M. Sommerfield (Harvard, 1957)
Julian Schwinger (Columbia, 1939)
\hspace{1cm} → Nobel Prize 1965
Isidor Isaac Rabi (Columbia, 1927)
\hspace{1cm} → Nobel Prize 1944
Albert Potter Wills (Clark, 1897)
Arthur Gordon Webster (Humboldt, 1890)
Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (Humboldt, 1842)
Johannes Peter Müller (Bonn, 1819-24)
Karl Asmund Rudolphi (Greifswald, 1795)
Christian Ehrenfried von Weigel (Göttingen, 1771)
Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben (Göttingen, 1775)
Abraham Gotthelf Kästner (Leipzig, 1739)
Christian August Hausen (Wittenberg, 1712)
Johann Christoph Wichmannshausen (Leipzig, 1685)
Otto Mencke (Leipzig, 1666/8)

That’s sixteen generations stretching back over 330 years. I am agog.

A few comments:

  • My academic roots are clearly German, the transition to the New World having come in the late nineteenth century with Arthur Gordon Webster, who acquired his doctorate at Humboldt University in Berlin, but taught at Clark University in Worcester, MA (the second oldest graduate school in the United States, I note). His name suggests he was an American by birth, and must have made the journey to Germany to study under Helmholtz. He sounds like an interesting character.
  • Hold on. If Wikipedia is to be believed, there is more to Arthur Gordon Webster than meets the eye. He was the founder of the American Physical Society! His area of research was mechanics and acoustics, he worked on the gyroscope, and he had a talent for languages, being “fluent in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Swedish, with a good knowledge of Italian and Spanish and competency in Russian and modern Greek.” Sadly, he committed suicide in 1923.
  • Webster’s advisor was Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the great scientists of the nineteenth century. He is primarily remembered today through the things that bear his name: the Helmholtz equation and the Helmholtz coil in electromagnetics, and the Helmholtz theorem in vector calculus. He did important work on the conservation of energy, and in thermodynamics. Apparently he also worked extensively on the physiology and optics of the eye, and in acoustics, publishing a book on the physiological basis of the aesthetics of music. Among his students are many illustrious names: Hertz, Michelson (of Michelson-Morley fame), Wilhelm Wundt (the “father of experimental psychology”), and even William James.
  • Helmholtz is the first “physicist”, in the modern sense, in my genealogy. His advisor, Johannes Müller, was an anatomist and physiologist, as was Müller’s advisor Karl Rudolphi, who also did work in botany and zoology. Rudolphi is remembered (happily) for arguing that plants are constituted from cells, and (unhappily) for proposing that the various human races should properly be considered different species. The Rudolphi whale is named for him. He is the founder of helminthology, which sounds great until you know what it is.
  • Rudolphi studied under Christian von Weigel, a professor of chemistry, botany, pharmacy, and mineralogy. The genus Weigela is named for him.
  • Weigel studied with Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben. My suspicion is that Erxleben was a Catholic, for Protestants just don’t name their children “Polycarp”. He was a professor of veterinary science, and founded the first German academic veterinary school. He authored a book called Systema regni animalis (1777), which might indicate that he took an interest in the work of his contemporary Carl Linnaeus.
  • Erxleben studied with Abraham Kästner, a mathematician. Kästner wrote voluminous surveys of mathematical topics, and books of original poetry. He directed the observatory at the university in Göttingen, and the Kästner lunar crater is named for him.
  • Next in line is Christian Hausen. I am unable to find much information about him, other than to say that he did early (very early) work on electricity and electrical generation. I note with interest, however, that he worked at the University of Leipzig at the same time that J.S. Bach was living and working in the city! Is it possible that Hausen saw the great man with his own eyes and heard him with his own ears? My friends, I think it is very possible. Marvelous!
  • Curiously, Hausen’s advisor, who bore the very impressive name of Johann Wichmannshausen, was a philologist and professor of Near Eastern languages. He wrote a book on the Templars (De extinctione ordinis Templariorum) and his thesis was on an important (and still relevant) point of moral philosophy (Disputationem Moralem De Divortiis Secundum Jus Naturae).
  • With Wichmannshausen’s advisor, Otto Mencke, the trail dries up. Mencke studied at Leipzig, but I am unable to discover who his advisor was, if indeed the advisor–student relationship existed at that time in the form we have come to expect. Mencke was a distinguished man, founding Germany’s first scientific journal, Acta Eruditorum, and being a correspondent of Isaac Newton. His thesis was entitled Ex Theologia naturali – De Absoluta Dei Simplicitate, Micropolitiam, id est Rempublicam In Microcosmo Conspicuam. If I were to hazard a translation, I would say “From Natural Theology – On the Absolute Simplicity of God, the Small State, that is, the Republic as a Miniature Cosmos”. I admit that this translation makes no sense. Anyone care to help?
  • It is nice to see those two Nobel prizes in my past. Julian Schwinger’s was for his work on quantum electrodynamics, of course (awarded also to Feynman and Tomonoga). Isidor Rabi’s prize was for work on magnetic resonance properties of nuclei. It was Rabi who famously greeted the news of the discovery of the muon by asking, “Who ordered that?” Personally, I’m rather fond of the muon, but then children, even academic great-great-great-grandchildren, often seem to their elders to have peculiar tastes.

I’m quite delighted by my genealogy. There are quite a number of distinguished men in that lineage, and I am proud to be a part of it, however inconsequential. I acknowledge, however — as I bring this post back to the conversation that spawned it — that it is not half so distinguished as my friend’s, whose family tree includes, if you can believe it, Schur, Frobenius, Weierstrass, Gauss, Hilbert, Klein, Dirichlet, Poisson, Fourier, Lagrange, Euler, and Bernoulli! Well done! (Incidentally, my lineage does intersect with his, and in the following way: Abraham Kästner was advisor not only to Johann Erxleben, but also to Johann Pfaff, who was in turn the advisor of Gauss.)

UPDATE: Here is a diagram showing the lineage discussed in this post.

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7 Responses to “Academic genealogies”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    I had no idea about that SPIRES database! Here is mine:

    Adam Hincks (Princeton, 2009?)
    Lyman Alexander Page, Jr. (MIT, 1989)
    Stephan Meyer (Princeton, 1979)
    David Wilkinson (Michigan U., 1962)
    Horace Richard Crane (Caltech, 1934)
    Charles Christian Lauritsen (Caltech, 1929)

    The trail runs cold rather quickly . . . it doesn’t say on SPIRES who Crane’s adviser was, but an internet search seemed to yielded Lauritsen; no similar luck with Lauritsen, who originally came from Denmark. The earlier guys were nuclear physicists. Wilkinson is the eponym of the WMAP satellite.

  2. cburrell Says:

    This is splendid fun. I did some hunting on Lauritsen, and it appears his advisor was Robert Millikan. The trail is hot again — very hot!

    I’d love to know where the trail leads from there. Do tell!

  3. Jim Says:

    What a lovely parlour game for a winter afternoon. Alas, I have to use Digital Dissertations and have a far shorter genology, but mine goes:

    Jim Farney (Toronto 2008?)
    Donald Forbes (Yale 1976)
    Robert Dahl (Yale 1940)
    F.W. Coker (??)

    Before Coker, I’m not sure, but then political scientists didn’t really get into this PhD business until the turn of the 20th century anyway. I may have to dig around more, for it would be fascinating to go farther back. Dahl (who is still publishing at 92) is probably my best claim to fame in the genealogical department

  4. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for playing, Jim. Do you suppose Robert Dahl is any relation to Roald Dahl? No, probably not.


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