A Mathematical Family Tree

I am delighted by what I just learned about my mathematical family tree.  It started with this tweet by scientist and writer Paul Halpern:

I followed the link to something called the Mathematics Genealogy Project.  This site lets you search a vast network of mathematicians connected by teacher-student relationships.  For example, the advisor for my master’s thesis at Oxford was William Shaw.  The math genealogy website revealed that the advisor for his doctorate at Cambridge was the great Roger Penrose, a hero of mine for discovering the aperiodic Penrose Tiling:


I am happy to be a humble mathematical grandchild of Roger Penrose.

I was curious to see who else might be in the family tree.  Working back two generations from Penrose, I found Arthur Cayley, whose students included Jacob Bronowski and  the 4D pioneer H.S.M. Coxeter.*  Cayley’s “brothers” included the physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

Winding back several more generations at Cambridge from Cayley, the name of Isaac Newton jumps out. His teacher, Isaac Barrow, studied under Vincenzo Viviani in Florence. One of Viviani’s two advisors at the Università di Pisa in 1642 was a certain Galileo Galilei. The trail finally ends in the 1500s with Nicolò Fontana Tartaglia, whose teacher is unknown. Tartaglia, whose face had been disfigured as a child by one of Louis XII’s soldiers, went on to solve the cubic equation. His disputes with Gerolamo Cardano over credit for this accomplishment were as bitter as Newton’s feud with Gottfried Leibniz over the calculus.

*For a terrific biography of Coxeter, see The King of Infinite Space by Siobhan Roberts. When I started reading it, I wondered how Donald Coxeter, the book’s subject, might be related to the prolific geometer H.S.M. Coxeter.  The second chapter cleared up the mystery by explaining how Harold Scott MacDonald Coxeter came to be named (the baby was to be given the names in a different sequence, but a quick rearrangement ensured that he would never be confused with a ship in the Royal Navy).

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