Science & Technology

New genealogy project allows astronomers to trace ‘ancestors’

The database provides information on more than 33,000 astronomers, their advisors and universities and the links to their dissertations

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 29 July 2020
The Astronomy Genealogy or AstroGen project provides information on more than 33,000 astronomers. Photo: Pixabay

A genealogy project for academics — who earned doctorates on astronomy-related theses or supervised research for such dissertations — was launched by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and its Historical Astronomy Division July 25, 2020.

The Astronomy Genealogy or AstroGen project allows these academics to trace their ‘ancestors’. In academic genealogy, however, a person’s ‘parent’ is their thesis advisor.

The database — which goes back to 1766 — provides information on more than 33,000 astronomers, their advisors and universities and the links to their dissertations.

Half the doctorates, however, were awarded since 2002, while two-thirds of the theses were online, according to a press release from AAS.

More than 28,000 academics who earned astronomy-related doctorates, including 5,000 scientists who advised them — but whose own doctorates are yet to be recorded — are listed in the database.

The project is nearly complete for 25 countries, according to AAS.

There were two reasons to launch such a project, according to Joseph S Tenn, founder and director of AstroGen.

“First, many scholars enjoy tracing their academic ancestors and descendants. Second, AstroGen will facilitate studies of the astronomical community by historians and sociologists of science,” he said.

Several interesting links between astronomy scholars of the past and present have come to light from the project.

AAS cites one such example: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was found to be the great-great-great-great-grandson of Henry Norris Russell, a leading astrophysicist in the first half of the 20th century. Tyson was also found to have academic ancestors in Australia and the United Kingdom.

“With information in the database, it is possible to compare numbers or careers of those earning astronomy-related doctorates for different countries, universities, or time periods,” said Tenn.

Universities in the United States awarded a little more than half the doctorates listed in the database, while the UK and Germany were in the second and third places respectively.

Universities that awarded more than 500 astronomy-related doctorates include:

  • California Institute of Technology
  • Harvard University
  • Heidelberg University
  • University of Arizona
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Cambridge

Degrees from universities in Asia, however, have not yet been compiled by the project.

Tenn has worked on the project ever since it was approved in January 2013. AAS depends on volunteers from several countries to participate in the project. Nearly all the data for AstroGen has come from online sources.

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