NET NEWS: Climbing Math's Family Tree

Science  24 Sep 1999:
Vol. 285, Issue 5436, pp. 2027
DOI: 10.1126/science.285.5436.2027c

Are there any living descendants of the school of Karl Friedrich Gauss, considered by many to be the greatest mathematician of all time? Who academically begat your favorite number theorist? Such questions can be answered by the Mathematics Genealogy Project, an ambitious effort to place the entire “family tree” of mathematicians on the Web.

The project was conceived about 5 years ago, when Harry Coonce, a mathematician at Minnesota State University in Mankato, wondered who his own thesis adviser's adviser was. “I felt sure that it must be published someplace, but when I asked around, no one knew,” Coonce says. He set out to establish a central repository for such information and, with two collaborators, went online in 1997. The Web page now lists the dissertation titles, universities, and thesis advisers of over 28,000 mathematicians from 1796 to 1999 and is adding about 1000 mathematicians a month.

The site can give visitors a new perspective on mathematical history. Great researchers like Gauss, who laid the groundwork for number theory, and Paul Erdös, considered one of the most prolific mathematicians of all time (Science, 7 February 1997, p. 759), leave nary a direct academic heir, while some founders of great schools, such as 19th-century German group theorist Felix Klein, leave hordes of followers. Visitors to the site can trace these genealogical paths by clicking on the names of advisers or their students. Plenty of branches of the tree are still bare: Many of the great Russian mathematicians are nowhere to be found.

A similar, although much smaller, family tree of theoretical computer scientists is maintained by Ian Parberry of the University of North Texas in Denton. Parberry notes that besides the sheer fun or “snob value” of finding out who one's famous ancestors were, the genealogies can help journal editors and funding agencies avoid conflicts of interest when distributing papers or grant proposals for peer review.

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