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NDSU Project Gives Mathematicians a Historical Perspective

It's a mathematician's glimpse of the past, and, perhaps, a connection with greatness. The Mathematics Genealogy Project, a service managed by the NDSU Department of Mathematics in association with the American Mathematical Society, resembles a "family tree." Mathematicians can discover who advised their adviser, who their adviser's adviser's adviser was, and so on back through history.

Fargo, N.D. – It's a mathematician's glimpse of the past, and, perhaps, a connection with greatness. The Mathematics Genealogy Project, a service managed by the NDSU Department of Mathematics in association with the American Mathematical Society, resembles a "family tree." Mathematicians can discover who advised their adviser, who their adviser's adviser's adviser was, and so on back through history.

"When mathematicians start something, they cannot stop," explained Dogan Comez, NDSU professor and chair of mathematics. "We like to trace our lineage back to a big name in mathematics."

Comez proudly says his personal history includes David Hilbert, a German mathematician often considered the most influential mathematician of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The project's database currently contains more than 150,000 records and is continually growing. The website dedicated to the project receives hundreds of hits each day, and a recent mention by Wired.com magazine has triggered more interest.

"Mathematically, one idea follows another and we like to see where a theory started," Comez said, noting the same reasoning follows when considering the educational lineage of advisers. "Mathematicians are inherently interested in discovering this genealogy about themselves," he said. "Your Ph.D. adviser's influence is enormous. You usually get your main research from them, and the adviser is the primary guide to solve problems and connect us to others in the field. We revere the individual, just as our adviser did of his or her adviser."

The Mathematics Genealogy Project was the brainchild of Harry Coonce, a former faculty member at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who took a sabbatical at NDSU in the late 1990s and is still an adjunct faculty member here. When he retired in 1999, Coonce spent much of his time gathering data and information, with the aim to form a genealogy tree for all mathematicians. Since 2003, NDSU has housed the project.

It's been incredibly popular among mathematicians. Two NDSU graduate students print out requested posters of tree genealogy diagrams, usually producing 10 or more per week.

"My genealogy goes back to the 1300s," said Jim Coykendall, James A. Meier Professor of mathematics. "Once it gets so far back, it's not purely mathematics. I might have an alchemist or two in my history." Coykendall said the department has produced genealogy diagrams for each of its faculty members. The results have been interesting.

"I'd say the most celebrated mathematician since the 1400s is Carl Gauss (a German mathematician and scientist born in 1777). My lineage comes through him, as does the history of 70 to 75 percent of all mathematicians. So, Dogan and I are related," Coykendall said.

The latest recognition by Wired.com is expected to push the interest to greater heights. Engineers and people in other fields that use mathematics are expected to join in.

"This publicity really is good for us and should help us build the database," Comez said. "It's a fun project, and because there are always new mathematicians coming onto the scene, it will never end."


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