Cafe Discovery: 250 years of history

Being rather bored Thursday, while proctoring a midterm exam in Computer Literacy, a couple of my former professors came up in conversation, including my adviser, Frank Anderson.  Frank studied the lattice characterization of C-Spaces, which won’t mean much to many, but the thing is that he studied in a field of mathematics called analysis.  By the time I met him, he was an algebraist.

So I’m an algebraist as well, having studied the homology of torsion theories.  My degree was awarded in 1981 at Oregon.  Frank got his in 1954 at Iowa.

And there was time to keep going.  Frank studied under Malcolm Smiley, who received his degree from Chicago in 1937, having studied Discontinuous Solutions for the Problem of Bolza in Parametric Form.  Smiley studied under William Reid, who received his degree in 1929 from Texas, having studied the properties of solutions to infinite systems of ordinary differential equations with boundary conditions.  His adviser at Texas was Hyman Ettlinger, who received his degree from Harvard in 1920, where he studied self-adjoint, second order linear systems of differential equations under George Birkhoff.

I perked up a bit, remembering that when I took my Russian exam in grad school, I had been given the task of translating a Russian version of Witt’s Theorem and having more than a cursory interest in the Birkhoff-Witt Theorem.  So I plowed onward.

Birkhoff, considered the most influential American mathematician of his time, received his degree from Chicago in 1907, having studied asymptotic properties of differential equations under E. H. Moore, who received his degree from Yale in 1885, where he extended theorems of Clifford and Cayley in n-dimensional geometry.  His adviser was H. A. Newton.

It turns out that the highest degree Newton ever received was a Bachelor of Science from Yale, in 1850.   So we lose continuity because there was no dissertation.  He did have an adviser, however, named Michel Chasles.  And he probably lead a fascinating life as a professor, nominally in mathematics, at Yale, where he was the resident expert, and worldwide authority, on the study of meteors and comets.

Chasles got his degree at École Polytechnique in 1814, as a student of Simeon Poisson.  The topic of his thesis, if there was one, is not recorded.  He was famous as a mathematical historian and worked in the field of geometry.

Up to this point we have moved back in time nine adviser generations and almost 200 years.  I thought that was pretty cool.

If none of the other names up to this point were known to you, perhaps Poisson is.  If you have ever had occasion to study statistics, you no doubt have head of the Poisson distribution.  He may have gained his degree (in 1800 at École Polytechnique) through work in partial differential equations or his work in potential theory.  It is known that he may be the most highly published mathematician ever, with over three hundred works.  His work in electricity and magnetism “virtually created the new branch of mathematics called mathematical physics.”

Now his advisers (he had two) were no slouches themselves.  Anyone who has ever taken Calculus probably would recognize Joseph Lagrange and Pierre-Simon Laplace.

The marquis de Laplace, among other things, developed mathematical astronomy, aka calculus-based celestial mechanics, as a science.  He was the first scientist to postulate the existence of black holes and gravitational collapse.  Apparently he was right.  He was known as the French Newton.  He began his career as an academic under the tutelage of another famous mathematician and physicist, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, known largely for his work in fluid mechanics.

d’Alembert was not educated in mathematics, but rather as a theologian in the latter half of the 1730s, at Collège Mazarin, one of the colleges of the University of Paris, which was destroyed during the revolution, so we lose track of this trail of historical record at this point.  His Jansenist professors are said to have attempted to put a stop to his interest in poetry and mathematics.  Pardon moi?

Poisson’s other adviser, Joseph Lagrange, born in Turin with Italian-French ancestry, was Euler’s handpicked successor to be director of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin.  After discovering a paper by Halley, he became interested in classical celestial mechanics, so he taught himself the mathematics necessary to understand what he was reading.  Along the way he invented the calculus of variations and began to correspond with Euler in 1754.  Because of this Euler is usually considered to be his adviser…as if he needed one.

To be continued…


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    • Robyn on October 12, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    …by the existence of the Mathematics Genealogy Project, hosted by North Dakota.State University.  Clearly I also used Wikipedia for further information, as well as the occasional alternate biographical site.  There are about 17 generations and 430 years left to traverse and will take us on a tour of the Protestant Reformation and a history of mathematical and scientific thought.

    • plf515 on October 12, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    I’d love to trace back my PhD ancestors…. although my favorite professor in grad school did not have a PhD, my advisor did.

    But Poisson as most published mathematician?  What about Euler? Or Erdos?

  1. known as “math incompetence human” beyond the basics I flounder. It makes me a crabby and I have a whale of a time with even the most simple stuff.

  2. …other disciplines, albeit not quite so queenly, might benefit from this as well…

    …though I find myself wondering what happend to all the other graduate students over that quarter millenia…the ones whose stories briefly intersected a period of thought or advance, and then spun into the personal, the spiritual, or who never wrote another word…but remembered that time.   But then, I’m a romantic :}

  3. Can I have more???

    Yes, it’s true that the horizontal relationships are remarkable, not just in math but in other areas as well. I think because of contrasts, connections, degrees of separation. Two examples come to mind: Freud and Einstein in Vienna at the same time.  Another, fictionalized by Ricardo Piglia, Hitler and Kafka together in Prag.  Did these people talk to each other?  What did they say?  

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