Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wednesday Math, Vol. 55: A bastard grandson pays his respects

North Dakota State University runs a very cool website called the Math Genealogy Project. If you type in the name of somebody who has a doctorate in math, the odds are very good that person will be on the list, and you will get the information of when he or she got the doctorate and who that person's advisor was. If the person whose name you typed has advised people who also have completed doctoral work, they will be listed as well. This way, you can wander around the field of mathematics, seeing who is related to whom through the relationship of advisors.

You would not find Matty Boy's name on the list, because Matty Boy never got a doctorate. Had I completed studies at UC Davis, I probably would have studied with Jesus De Loera, but that is just speculation. I did get my master's degree, however, and though the school where I got my degree did not require a dissertation, the work I did on a computer program called sc_classify is probably just a few bells and whistles away from being worth a master's thesis, and I did this work with Stuart Smith, who to this day is still the greatest math professor I ever had, and the setter of a standard of quality of instruction I try to reach, though I probably never will.

While I am an unlisted mathematical son of Stuart Smith, Stu got his doctorate at UC Berkeley studying with Shiing Shen Chern, who many consider to be the greatest mathematician ever to have been born in China. After doing his undergraduate work in China, Chern's brilliance was noted by many at international conferences and he was invited to do his doctoral work at the University of Hamburg under Wilhelm Blaschke, a degree he earned in 1936. Chern's field was differential geometry, and he did important work of a fundamental nature in the field, so much so that a major concept in differential geometry are called Chern classes in his honor.

Chern's life was thrown into upheaval many times because of the chaotic nature of 20th Century history. With his degree earned in Germany in 1936, he decided to leave that country to study for a while in Paris, but soon enough that became difficult as well. He returned to China for a while, but with the Japanese invading Nanking, Chern decided to teach in the United States, first at Princeton and the Institute of Advanced Studies. He returned to China, but the civil war that followed World War II made for too much turmoil, and he returned to the United States, back to Princeton for a while, then to the University of Chicago, where his presence on the faculty added greatly to that school's prestige. Likewise, he added to the mathematical prestige of the University of California at Berkeley when he left Chicago to teach there, though Cal already had a strong reputation in physics and chemistry before Chern arrived. He was the first director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) at Berkeley from 1981 to 1984, when he was invited to return to China yet again, where he founded a school now known as the Chern Institute of Mathematics at Nankai University in Tianjin. Professor Chern died in December 2004.

So Matty Boy has a proud mathematical geneology, though I should make clear that Professor Chern deserves absolutely no blame for how this lazy and illegitimate grandson turned out.


dguzman said...

Sometimes the bastard sons go on to do the best work, you know? At least that's how it is in some movies.

ken said...

Prof Chern looks familiar. I may have taken 3rd quarter Calculus from him at Cal.

The Math Genealogy Project looks cool. Amusingly, the first math PhD that came to mind was our mutual former boss at VM Labs, who's not listed, though two other former colleagues there are.

Karen Zipdrive said...

Wow, I typed in the name David Spellman and there he was.
I went to high school with him. He was brilliant.
He passed away a few years ago. Cancer.
Thanks for finding a way for me to think of him again.