On this page, we explore another kind of family tree: the academic generations created by a teacher who teaches a student how to learn, who in turn becomes a teacher who passes on that knowledge to other students, who in turn become teachers who pass on that knowledge …, and so on. The cycle continues, as it has since the days of Socrates, his student Plato, and Plato's student Aristotle.
The PhD thesis advisor (sometimes called "dissertation advisor" or "major professor") plays a key role in helping others learn and become contributors to the state of the art. Perhaps there's no better way to explain the significance of a thesis advisor than by the following parable found on the web:
A Parable on the Importance of a Thesis Advisor
A little rabbit was sitting in a field, scribbling on a pad of paper, when a fox came along. "What are you doing, little rabbit?" "I'm working on my PhD thesis," said the rabbit. "Really?" said the fox. "And what is your topic?" "Oh, the topic doesn't matter," said the rabbit. "No, tell me," begged the fox.
"If you must know," said the rabbit, "I'm advancing a theory that rabbits can eat many quite large animals — including, for instance, foxes." "Surely you have no experimental evidence for that!" scoffed the fox.
"Yes, I do," said the rabbit, "and if you'd like to step inside this cave for a moment, I'll be glad to show you." So the fox followed the rabbit into the cave. About half an hour passed. Then the rabbit came back out, brushing a tuft of fox fur off his chin, and began once more to scribble on his pad of paper.
News spreads quickly in the forest, and it wasn't long before a curious wolf came along. "l hear you're writing a thesis, little rabbit," said the wolf. "Yes," said the rabbit, scribbling away. "And the topic?" asked the wolf. "Not that it matters, but I'm presenting some evidence that rabbits can eat larger animals — including, for example, wolves." The wolf howled with laughter.
"I see you don't believe me," said the rabbit. "Perhaps you would like to step inside this cave and see my experimental apparatus." Licking her chops, the wolf followed the rabbit into the cave. About half an hour passed before the rabbit came out of the cave with his pad of paper, munching on what looked like the end of a long gray tail.
Then along came a big brown bear. "What's this I hear about your thesis topic?" he demanded. "I can't imagine why you all keep pestering me about my topic," said the rabbit irritably, "as if the topic made any difference at all." The bear sniggered behind his paw: "Something about rabbits eating bigger animals was what I heard — and some kind of experiment inside the cave."
''That's right," snapped the rabbit, putting down his pencil. "And if you want to see it, I'll gladly show you." Into the cave they went, and a half hour later the rabbit came out again, picking his teeth with a big bear claw.
By now all the animals in the forest were getting nervous about the rabbit's project, and a little mouse was elected to sneak up and peek into the cave when the rabbit's back was turned.
There she discovered that the mystery of the rabbit's thesis had not only a solution but also a moral: The mystery's solution is that the cave contained an enormous lion. And the moral is that your thesis topic really doesn't matter — as long as you have the right thesis advisor!
Jeff's Academic Genealogy
In this section, we trace the academic genealogy of this website's co-founder Jeffrey Scott Vitter, who received his PhD in computer science from Stanford University in 1980. Jeff owes much to his thesis advisor, Donald Ervin Knuth, who is arguably the world's most famous academic computer scientist. Don is generally regarded as the person most responsible for the establishment of computer science as a rigorous academic discipline.
Computer science departments began appearing at universities starting in the mid 1960s (notably at Purdue, Pennsylvania, Stanford, and Carnegie-Mellon). By the early 1980s, major universities routinely included a computer science department; CS departments were no longer subparts of other departments, as they had been in the past, most typically mathematics or electrical engineering departments.
This growth of CS departments was largely inspired by Don Knuth's foundational work entitled The Art of Computer Programming, which Don conceived of 61 years ago as a seven-volume series of books on computing. He has been working on the volumes (among countless other things!) ever since. The first edition of Volume I: Fundamental Algorithms, was published in 1968. The principal part of Jeff's PhD thesis involved solving an open problem on hashing posed in Volume 3: Sorting and Searching. In 1974 Don received the Turing Award — computer science's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
Coincidentally, Don Knuth's wife N. Jill (née Carter) Knuth is a world-class genealogist (in the conventional non-academic sense!) and has done some amazing work uncovering generations of relatives, augmented aesthetically through the typesetting and font design systems TeX and METAFONT invented by her husband Don.
Jeff's academic genealogy goes back 10 generations starting with Don through a series of notable Scandinavian mathematicians. And it goes forward through Jeff's own PhD students and their students. Most of Jeff's students went on to careers in industry — at Akamai, Amazon, Apple, AT&T Labs–Research, Avaya Labs, Bell Northern (Nortel), CACI, Conexant, Freescale Semiconductor, Goldman Sachs, Google, HP Labs, IBM Research, iCompression, Intrinsity, Lucent Technologies Bell Labs, Microsoft, Microway, Motorola Navini, Pelago, RichRelevance, Sony, Veveo, Visa Research, Winphoria, Xilient, and Zenverge. But some did go into academia and had their own PhD students.
Here is Jeff's academic genealogy in chronological order. The generations are numbered starting with Jeff's earliest known academic ancestor:
- Søren Rasmussen
- Bernt Michael Holmboe (1795–1850)
- Carl Anton Bjerknes (1825–1903)
- Marius Sophus Lie (1842–1899)
- Elling Bolt Holst (1849–1915)
- Axel Thue (1863–1922)
- Thor Skolem (1887–1963)
- Øystein Ore (1899–1968)
- Marshall Hall Jr. (1910–1990)
- Donald Ervin Knuth
- Jeffrey Scott Vitter
- Wen-Chin Chen
- Jyh-Han Lin
- Paul G. Howard
- Mark H. Nodine
- P. Krishnan
- Sairam (Sai) Subramanian
- Darren E. Vengroff
- Rakesh Barve
- Dzung T. Hoang
- T. M. (Tmax) Murali
- Min Wang
- Apostol (Paul) Natsev
- Octavian (Tavi) Procopiuc
- Lipyeow Lim
- Ankur Gupta
Theoretical Computer Science Genealogy
The main professional organization worldwide for computer scientists is the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The ACM has almost 40 special-interest groups (or SIGs) representing the main subfields of computer science. SIGACT, the SIG on Algorithms and Computation Theory, sponsored the creation of a family tree of theoretical computer scientists, using the PhD advisor-student relationship discussed in the previous section. It shows many of Jeff's academic siblings, uncles, aunts, siblings, etc. Unfortunately, it hasn't been kept up-to-date; the current version shows the state of things in the mid-1990s.
A more extensive and up-to-date family tree of mathematicians appears in the Mathematics Genealogy Project. It also includes entries for theoretical computer scientists.