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Wednesday, August 18, 1999

Retired Mathematician Develops a Family Tree of the Scholars in His Field


When Harry B. Coonce tried to trace his mathematical roots -- to discover the identity of his academic advisor's advisor -- he hit a wall. Mr. Coonce, a retired mathematics professor, found that no one at his graduate program had the information.

His frustration led him to create a resource to help mathematicians track their intellectual lineage. The result is the Genealogy Project for Mathematicians, a Web site that lists

Already, many professors and students of math have learned the identities of their so-called siblings, aunts and uncles, or cousins.
the advisors of thousands of mathematicians. Mr. Coonce has been assisted in the effort by other math professors, as well as students, who maintain the World-Wide Web site.

He hopes that the data base, which already contains more than 27,000 names, will eventually identify everyone who has earned a research degree in mathematics during the 20th century. Already, many professors and students of math have learned the identities of their so-called siblings (other students who studied under their graduate advisors), aunts and uncles (siblings of their advisors), or cousins (students who studied under their aunts and uncles).

When he began the project a few years ago, Mr. Coonce gathered names informally, asking friends and professors whom he had met at various conferences. But more recently, he sent out a request for rosters from all universities that grant math Ph.D.'s. He also publicized his project at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Berlin last October.

"I keep moving my estimates up, but I now think 70,000 or 80,000 names will be needed before we are approaching completeness, although I am not so naive as to think we will ever get them all," he says.

Mr. Coonce had little experience with the Web before undertaking the genealogy project, but he is now convinced that the information can be presented adequately only through the electronic medium.

"Some people tell me that I have a very interesting Web site, and ask how I am going to publish it. I tell them that it already is published," he says. "The project is not at all suitable to paper and ink. It makes no sense to look up a particular name on paper and then go see page 37 for the next one, for instance."

The Web site has its share of gimmicks -- in part to interest visitors in the history of mathematics. The adoption of the "sibling," "parent," "grandparent" terminology is one example. Visitors who have math Ph.D.'s can also order T-shirts tracing their own personal genealogy (or as much as is known). A new "most wanted" list includes the names of a group of prominent mathematicians whose advisors are all unknown.

For Mr. Coonce, the goal is to compile information about all the mathematicians on the planet. A notice on the home page states that the project is "permanently under construction."

"We'll take data in any form," he says. "We'll take it through snail mail, on typed copy, or even handwritten copy."

Anyone with names to add to the site can send an e-mail message to Mr. Coonce at

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Copyright 1999, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.