Sunday, September 26, 2021

My academic lineage and more interesting facts that come out of it

 I got my PhD from Harvard in 1985 with advisor Harry Lewis

Harry Lewis got his PhD from Harvard in 1974 with advisor Burton Dreben (Dreben was in the Philosophy department and did logic). Burton Dreben never got a PhD (more on that later). So I thought my lineage stopped there. A while back I was in an email conversation with Harry and for some odd reason Galileo came up.

He then emailed me the following:


Did you know you were descended from Galileo, via Newton? See below. The data is from the Math Genealogy project (see here). As you know  Dreben had no PhD, but it would certainly be fair to call Quine his advisor anyway. And, in fact, the Math Geneology project lists Quine as Dreben's advisor. By starting with Dreben and clicking backwards I found the following:

In the list below everyone was advised (in some form) by the person below them.

William Gasarch, Harvard 1985

Harry Lewis, Harvard 1974

Burton Dreben, Harvard 1955

WVO Quine, Harvard 1932

AN Whitehead, Cambridge 1884

Edward John Routh, Cambridge 1857

William Hopkins, Cambridge 1830

Adam Sedgwick, Cambridge 1811

Thomas Jones, Cambridge 1782

Thomas Postlethwaite, Cambridge 1756

Stephen Whisson, Cambridge 1742

Walter Taylor, Cambridge 1723

Robert Smith, Cambridge 1715

Roger Coles, Cambridge 1706

Isaac Newton, Cambridge 1668

Isaac Barrow, Cambridge 1652

Vincenzo Viviani, Pisa 1642

Galileo Galilei, Pisa 1585


A few observations

1) Dreben was a philosophy professor at Harvard without a PhD. How? He was a Junior Fellow, which is for brilliant people, some of which were made professors without  the burden of going  through the PhD-getting ritual.  Andrew Gleason was a professor of Math at Harvard without a PhD-- also a junior fellow (he solved Hilbert's 5th problem, which surely helped). Tom Cheatham was a CS professor at Harvard who did not have a PhD but  was not a junior fellow. I do not know how he did that. Things are more formal now, and more people have PhD's, so I suspect it is much rarer to be a professor without a PhD.  Harvard still has the Junior Fellows Program, but even they have PhDs now. If someone solved P vs NP as an ugrad, I suspect they would be hired as a professor even though they do not have a PhD. That's one way for a theorist to get out of taking graduate systems courses. 

2) Note that Galileo and Vincenzo were in Pisa but then a long line of people from Cambridge. In those days schools hired their own. Is this good or bad? They know what they are getting, but you could have an old-boys-network blocking fresh new talent, and you may get stuck in your ways. Nowadays, at least in America, it is uncommon to stay at the same school as you got your PhD.

3) The shift from Pisa to Cambridge might be part of a more general phenomena--- the intellectual center for science shifting from Italy to England. What caused this? Amir Alexander, in his book Infinitesimals: How a dangerous mathematical idea shaped the modern world (see my review here ) speculates that the Catholic Church's rejection of Infinitesimals was the cause.  I suspect that letting non-scientists interfere with science was the cause (a lesson for us all).

4) Lance did a blog on his lineage here. He has Gauss and Euler as ancestors. 

5) To honor the myths about  my two most famous academic ancestors, Galileo and Newton,  I am going to travel to Italy and have Darling drop two apples of different weights off the leaning tower of Pisa and see if they hit my head at the same time.


  1. Just a couple comments. (0) Harry Levin (literary scholar) is another example of a PhD-less Junior Fellow who went on to tenure at Harvard. That does not happen any more (oh. wait, I am pretty sure poet Seamus Heaney had tenure, so there is a quite recent example). (1) Rediet Abebe is a Junior Fellow. It's a great program for those fortunate enough to get it. (2) Tom Cheatham's appointment was at a time when there were very few senior people with PhDs in CS, and Tom had done a fair amount of publishing. He had a draft of his book on compilers (which was never published). Still, it was surely anomalous even then. I can't think of any current senior faculty in Arts and Sciences or Engineering who don't have PhDs. But I think it would be an interesting thing to blog about -- why exactly do universities require a research degree to teach computer science? Cf. William James, "The PhD Octopus."

    1. I got an email that informed me that:

      ``It seems that Whitehead didn't do a formal PhD (that wasn't
      the English way), but he did have a faculty advisor for the
      Tripos, which was the English way of doing theings, and that was added [do the online geneology] recently.''

      Two points, one trivial, one interesting
      1) Trivial point - should we retroactively say YES, A was B's
      advisor if they had that kind of role. YES. The notion of
      ``formal advisor'' already has lots of variation in it depending on how much the advisor input.

      2) Harry's point- why do we need a PhD to TEACH CS?
      I will go further- why do we need a PhD to DO RESEARCH in CS?
      When did things get so formal?

      This is not a complaint- but the beginning of a discussion, perhaps a later blog post.

  2. Depending on who the audience is, for instance, assume
    the audience consists of "eager beavers" (*not* an insult to people from the other place in Cambridge) who are
    aspiring to become the next leading crop doing R&D, or pioneering new sub disciplines altogether ... for them, I'd think, a PhD teaching can be more motivating (unless the PhD is not a complete klutz -- there are plenty of those too!).

    That said, a non-PhD can be inspiring up to a certain level;
    then again, there are always exceptions, such as the late Freeman J. Dyson -- one wonders what it felt like to take one of his classes (if he ever taught any).

    1. @{Harry_Lewis, Gasarch}:

      In retrospect, there seems to be similarity
      or intersection of characters between
      Burton S. Dreben and David H. Blackwell.

      Blackwell considered himself more of a "teacher"
      than researcher ... that said, he always asked
      the right questions, foundational questions. Is
      this how Dreben went about things?

      Perhaps one of you was fortunate to have gotten to
      know Blackwell in person and can attest to my hunch?

      (OK, Blackwell did have a PhD, though.)