Friday, August 14, 2009

The Mathematics Genealogy Project

Posted By Ann Rabinowitz
For those of you who are math geniuses and also those not so, the idea of a mathematics genealogy project might be intriguing.  The idea sprang from the brain of mathematician Harry B. Coonce, who one day decided that he wanted to know the name of his advisor’s advisor.  This turned into a lifetime project to document all PhD’s in mathematics and their advisors and enter them into a database. 

The database became known as The Mathematics Genealogy Project which is a service of the North Dakota State University Department of Mathematics in association with the American Mathematical Society and funded, in part, by the Clay Mathematics Institute.  The database can be accessed by clicking here.
The database requires a submitter’s name and e-mail address and then identifying information of the mathematician such as given name, other names and family name as well as MathSciNet ID.  It has their degree information such as the name of the degree, year and thesis topic, math subject class and school(s), and advisor(s).  There are even visual tutorials on how to enter data and utilize the database as well as update it.
The database can be searched by the following criteria:  first, middle and last names of the PhD, the name of the school(s) he/she attended, the year of their degree, thesis keyword, country, and math subject class.
What this means is that you can trace some of the top mathematicians such as Leibniz (Dr. jur., 1666, Universitat Altdorf), to the present.  This stretches to a database with over 135,384 records and includes the “descendants” or students of some of the top fifty mathematicians in the world. 

An instance of how this works is the inclusion of the well-known function theory mathematician Felix Klein (April 25, 1849 – June 22, 1925) who advised fifty-eight doctoral students or “descendants” during his career.  This can then be extrapolated to the students they advised and so on until there are now 26,563 “descendants” for Dr. Klein.  This amounts to quite a substantial family tree.

This database is not only an important one for the mathematics community, but for Jewish genealogists as well.  The Jewish genealogist can look up their relative(s) and gain valuable information on their education and status.  They can also add them to the database where information is known.

What made me think of investigating this is my interest in the intellectual history of mathematics and the large number of Jewish mathematicians that I have been aware of, especially those whose families I knew such as Richard Courant and his son Ernest and Gilbert, Benjamin and Marc Baumslag. 

In the case of Richard Courant, who taught at New York University, the database indicates that he had 32 students and 3,361 descendants. 

Richard Courant

As to New York mathematician, Gilbert Baumslag, who teaches at the City College of New York, he has 19 students and 26 descendants, so far, in The Mathematics Genealogy Project.

Other mathematicians to be found in the database are the well-known Victorian era professors, Arthur Cayley and James Joseph Sylvester; the German mathematicians Ernst Steinitz and Friedrich Wilhelm Levi; and Americans Norbert Wiener and Isadore Singer.

As you can see, this type of resource is invaluable in tracing one’s ancestors and their descendants who had a mathematical bent.  Perhaps it will even encourage you to document the mathematical traits of your family as you would their physical traits and health histories.

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