Royal Families of Theoretical Physics


I’ll soon be heading to a country where God saves the queen, but perhaps I’m not as unacquainted with the conept of a royal family as one might suspect. One can construct “academic genealogies” of prominent figures in theoretical physics and mathematics. I recently found a wonderful chart of prominent bloodlines in theoretical physics on Wikipedia. Many prominent high energy theorists are connected to “royal theoretical physics families” of other prominent theorists.

Richard Feynman is a descendant of John Wheeler, along with Arthur Jaffe and Kip Thorne. However, Feynman’s academic family of prominent physicists is much smaller than that of his longtime competitor (and co-inventor of QED), Julian Schwinger. The Schwinger line is characterized by the fruitful Georgi family (Georgi being a student of Sommerfield, who was a student of Schwinger). Howard Georgi, along with some fantastic textbooks, has ushered in some of today’s most notable theorists, including Lawrence Hall (who advised Nima Arkani-Hamed), Lisa Randall (who advised Csaba Csaki), and Ann Nelson/David B. Kaplan (who are now married and are professors at the University of Washington).

Another major figure in Feynman’s generation was Murray Gell-Mann (who named the fundamental particles that couple to the strong force “quarks”), whose family tree includes Ken Wilson (who begat Michael Peskin and Stephen Shenker, both at Stanford), and the fruitful Sidney Coleman line.

There is some geographical separation between the families. The Ralph Fowler lineage includes Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Paul Dirac, along with the latter’s slew of Oxbridge (i.e. Cambridge and/or Oxford) descendants, such as Stephen Hawking and, via Martin Rees, Roger Blanford (who is now at Stanford).

Nobel prizes may not mean as much in theoretical physics as it doesn’t credit brilliant ideas that didn’t pan out to be what nature chose (e.g. SU(5) grand unification)–perhaps the equivalent would be the Dirac and Sakurai Prizes–but from the aforementioned list we can note theorists who directly produced the most Nobel winners:

  • Enrico Fermi, produced 7: Emilio Segre, James Rainwater, Chen Ning Yang, Owen Chamberlain (a Berkeley Nobelist), Tsung-Dao Lee, Jack Steinberger, and Jerome Friedman.
  • Julian Schwinger produced 4: Ben Mottelson, Sheldon Glashow, Roy Glauber, and Walter Kohn
  • I.I. Rabi produced 3: Schwinger, Shelon Glashow, Norman Ramsey, and Martin Perl (a Stanford Nobel).

Notable (i.e. immediately relevant to this blog) Sakurai Prize Winners not in a listed bloodline (this is my own list and I apologize for the omissions of many remarkable scientists who I could not fit in to this space):

  • Savas Dimopoulos (2006, a Stanford Sakurai prize), a student of Yoichiro Nambu–who was also not in a prominent bloodline.
  • Lenny Susskind (1998, another Stanford Sakurai), one of the founding fathers of string theory.
  • Mary K. Gaillard (1993, a Berkeley Sakurai winner), whom I currently meet with weekly to discuss my progress in learning supersymmetry.

In fact, every Sakurai winner in the past 10 years except Curtis Callan and William Bardeen didn’t belong to a royal bloodline.

There is more overlap with the ICTP Dirac Medal list, though still about half of the medalists were establishing new families:

  • Bruno Zumino (1987, a Berkeley Medalist), who often swings by Professor Gaillard’s office to ask if she wanted this or that book or whether he should throw it out as they are busy moving offices. (He also co-developed the Wess-Zumino supersymmetry model and the Wess-Zumino-Witten conformal field theory model.)
  • Michael Green (1989, a Cambridge Medalist), who wrote “the book” (one of them, at least) on string theory.
  • Helen Quinn (2000, a Stanford Medalist), co-founder of the Peccei-Quinn mechanism.

Of the twenty recipients of the Paul Dirac Medal and Prize (similarly named to the Dirac Medal, but a different distinction), only four are listed on the famous bloodline list (Stephen Hawking, John Bell, Peierls, and David Deutsch).

I mention this mainly because I’d like the take home point to be positive:

Excellent physicists beget excellent physicists, but the club isn’t exclusive–not all excellent physicsts came from “royal” advisors.

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