Of Academic Genealogies

Yesterday, in a post on this blog, I wrote about the most familiar kinds of genealogies, the familial, and the quest to uncover their details. Today, I want to make note of another kind of genealogy that sometimes obsesses folks like me: our academic ones.

Some thirteen odd years ago, shortly after I had finished my dissertation defense, I sat in the bar room of the Algonquin Hotel, enjoying a celebratory whisky or two with some friends. My dissertation adviser, Rohit Parikh, was in attendance. As we chatted, I said something like, ‘So it continues, from Hartley Rogers [Professor Parikh’s dissertation adviser]  to you to me.’ And he replied, ‘Yes, and before that, Alonzo Church.’ On hearing this, I felt absurdly pleased.  My academic lineage could be traced back to the man for whom the Church-Turing thesis was named? Nice work, dude.

It was, as I noted, an ‘absurd’ reaction. But in a community where an immediate academic ancestor had a significant impact on employment and subsequent career prospects, it wasn’t the strangest reaction to have.

A year or so later, I discovered the Mathematical Genealogy project, found an entry for myself,  duly traced my ‘academic family tree’, and came up with the following tale:

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz begat Nicolas Malebranche who begat Jacob Bernoulli who begat Johann Bernoulli who begat Leonhard Euler who begat Joseph Lagrange who begat Simeon Poisson who begat Michel Chasles who begat H.A Newton who begat E.H Moore who begat Oswald Veblen who begat Alonzo Church who begat Hartley Rogers who begat Rohit Parikh who begat Samir Chopra.

My initial reaction was that that is a ridiculously distinguished lineage to have.  If I had even a vanishingly small fraction of the mathematical talent on display, I would have won the Turing Award and the Fields Medal by now.

This feeling was all too quickly replaced by another feeling quite familiar to academics: I didn’t belong in there. My mathematical and logical talents are limited; I never rose above competence in my academic work in those domains. I was, you guessed it, an impostor. Indeed, after I had, in an initial burst of enthusiasm, announced the results of my quest to some colleagues and friends, I went mum. Why highlight a line of ancestry that showcased my lack of fit?

A couple of years later, there was even less occasion to talk up my mathematical genealogy: I wasn’t writing papers in logic any more and had moved on to other topics of interest. And besides, I had figured out the only relevant part of my academic genealogy was the node that preceded me; little else mattered. That connection is one I remain proud of for the right reasons: the relationship was, and is, a friendly and intellectually enriching one. And that, I think, is all that should matter.

Note: The following chart–produced by Yifan Hu of the AT&T Shannon Laboratory–shows the second largest tree in the Mathematical Geneaology Project. It shows a total of 11766 mathematicians, with the hundred most prolific dissertation advisers circled: plot_comp2_p2.2_font8. Interestingly enough, ninety-eight percent of the nodes on this tree are leaves i.e., they have no students.  (I thank Noson Yanofsky for sending me this reminder of my incongruous location in this luminous bunch.)

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