Built on Facts

The Begats of Physics

Several places in the Bible, there’s long lists of genealogies. The first chapter of Matthew, for instance, looks pretty much like this: …and Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias; and Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias… and so on. There’s a point to it. Ancestry and tribal lineage were a big deal to ancient peoples, and lists of genealogy were how people kept track of ancestry.

Extreme talent in the sciences is rarely hereditary. Great physicists tend to be extreme outliers and regression to the mean tends to reduce the possibility of Nobel-winning talent levels being inherited. There are exceptions such as J.J. Thomson’s son winning a Nobel prize, but it’s unusual.

There is another way you might keep track of physics genealogies. How about instead of “son/daughter of” we say “graduate student of”? There’s all kinds of cool lineages there. For instance:

Lord Rayleigh begat J.J. Thomson, Thomson begat J. Robert Oppenhemer; Oppenhemier begat Willis Lamb, Lamb begat Marlan Scully.

Marlan Scully is one of the fathers of quantum optics, and an active professor at Texas A&M university. I see him in group meetings all the time. He’s unbelievably good at physics, which is no surprise. It’s a little amazing to think that in some sense he’s a direct connection to so many legendary names of the physics past.

Or how about this one:

Ralph Fowler begat Paul Dirac, Dirac begat Dennis Sciama, Sciama begat Stephen Hawking, Hawking begat Christopher Pope.

Dr. Pope is also a professor at Texas A&M, a high-energy theorist. I’m actually in one of his classes right now. Brilliant man, and one of the best teachers in the department. I hope he doesn’t read this or he’ll think I’m just trying to ingratiate myself, but he really is excellent.

You find these cool chains of science everywhere. If you have a copy of Landau and Lifshitz’ book on quantum mechanics, you’ll find thanked in the acknowledgments a student of Lifshitz named V. L. Pokrovskii. Would you like to know if his Quantum II class is difficult? It is. But that’s the way it should be, and he personally is a good teacher with a great sense of humor. When discussing the quantum behavior of atomic electrons, he told us about a great contribution of Dimitri Mendeleev to science: his calculation of the perfect vodka strength.

And that’s just a few lineages from the faculty at one public university in Texas with a pretty good physics department. Do a little digging about where your own professors studied. I’ll bet you’re closer to the legends of physics history than you think.


  1. #1 asad
    September 22, 2008

    There’s already a website with this info on it somewhere…unfortunately I’ve forgotten where :(

  2. #2 bob
    September 22, 2008

    asad: http://www.genealogy.ams.org is pretty relevant. mathematics, yes, but most of the big physics names are there.

  3. #3 Tom
    September 22, 2008

    I am of Nobel blood, via the Theodor Haensch lineage. (pardon the anglicized spelling; the umlaut doesn’t display correctly when I try to do it properly)

  4. #5 Eric Lund
    September 22, 2008

    I’m a fourth-generation descendent of Van Allen, working in the same field he worked in.

    Tom: There are various ways to get accented characters to display on HTML. The characters used in Western European languages have associated mnemonics: To get an ä, you type the & character followed by “auml” and a semicolon. It’s case sensitive; if you type “Auml” instead of “auml” you get a capital Ä. You can also type the Unicode numerical equivalent after the & character, but I’d have to look up how to do it that way.

  5. #6 derek
    September 22, 2008

    Begats look like what Stephen Jay Gould dismissed as the poorest cases in evolution: the nearly-extinct clades that were down to their last species.

    What about the luxuriant bushes of physics? Which famous figure of the past can claim the most impressive diversity of graduate students in the present day?

  6. #7 Ken Zetie
    September 22, 2008

    When I was a graduate student in Oxford we used to play this game – and seeing how we were related to other students. If your supervisor is your ‘father’ and his supervisor your ‘grandfather’ then other students in the dept rapidly become cousins, uncles etc. Our group (under Derek Stacey then back to Heine Kuhn) was also related to Ted Hansch (commewnt #3) so when we met his students at a conference we worked out we were all something like 3rd cousins. Something to raise a beer to at least!

  7. #8 Greg Laden
    September 22, 2008

    One day in an upper division class in bio anthropology I threw in a bit of context by doing some begats. The students loved it. So next time I taught the class, I did more. They loved it more. Eventually I made it into a standard part of the class and it included an assignment in which the students could present the genealogies in any way they chose. Many picked power points, other posters. My favorite as twine, with interbreeding allowed and something lie fifty individuals included. This twine display could not be hung or laid out in any presentable way. It had to look like the xmas tree lights from years past fresh out of the box. That is the only way it would resolve, like a very complex protein, or String Theory on LSD. Or just history.

  8. #9 CCPhysicist
    September 22, 2008

    No one knows about the theoretical physics genealogy?


    At the very bottom is a link back to ancient history where physics and math meet. I have always been entertained by the fact that my lineage goes through Sommerfeld back to Gauss (although I never invoke this when teaching E+M), but also (via Klein, who was also advised by Lipschitz) to a step family of Poisson, Lagrange, Euler, and Bernoulli.

  9. #10 Ibid
    September 23, 2008

    Many Biblical scholars thing that all those begats may refer to tribes of people instead of actual individuals.

  10. #11 wokka
    September 23, 2008

    Interesting! I never thought of doing this. I wonder how far back you can normally get before the memories are lost (after that I guess you have to go dig in some old books).