Like Parent, Like Child

In honor of yesterday’s Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, here is a look at some important scientific advancements made by parent-child collaborations. Just imagine the dinner conversations…

*Please note that each person mentioned is an esteemed scientist in his or her own right, with many other important contributions that aren’t mentioned in these brief highlights.

Uncovering the Fate of the Dinosaurs

Luis Walter Alvarez received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to elementary particle physics, but he made significant discoveries over a wide range of areas including cosmic rays, nuclear physics, radar systems, and dinosaur extinction. Yes, dinosaur extinction. Luis and his son, geologist Walter Alvarez, led a team who uncovered evidence that a large asteroid impacted the Earth approximately 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and ending the Mesozoic Era. This theory is widely accepted by the science community and commonly referred to as the Alvarez hypothesis.

The father-son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez in 1981.
Image Credit: US Department of Energy, public domain

Refining X-ray Crystallography

Sir William Henry Bragg and his son Sir William Lawrence Bragg (Lawrence) are the only parent-child team to ever share a Nobel Prize. They received the 1915 physics prize for their work using X-rays to analyze the structure of crystalline solids. Inspired by Max von Laue’s theory that X-rays could be diffracted by crystalline solids, they designed experimental and mathematical tools that scientists still use to determine the structure of crystals via X-ray diffraction patterns. Lawrence was only 25 years old when they won the prize, and remained the youngest Nobel Prize winner until Malala Yousafzai won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize at 17 years old.

Revealing the Fundamentals of Radioactivity

Home to five Nobel Prizes related to radioactivity, the Curie family is responsible for huge developments in the field. Husband and wife Marie Sklodowska Curie and Pierre Curie did pioneering work on radioactivity theory for which they shared half of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Marie received the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the elements radium and polonium. They passed on their passion to their daughter Irène, who studied at the Radium Institute they established and did her PhD on polonium. Irène shared the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie for discovering that stable elements could be turned radioactive.

Marie, Pierre, and a skeptical Irène Curie, circa 1902.
Image Credit: Source unknown, public domain

Laying the Foundation for Modern Astrophysics

You might know the name Cassini from the incredible mission to Saturn, but the Cassini spacecraft is the namesake of a seventeenth century Italian astronomer, Giovanni Domenico Cassini. Giovanni had a hand in all sorts of projects, many leading to key insights on Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. He helped found the Paris Observatory and oversaw it beginning in 1671. The subsequent directors were his son Jacques Cassini, his grandson César-François Cassini de Thury, and his great-grandson Dominique, comte de Cassini. In total, the Cassini family ran the Paris Observatory for over 120 years. They and those under their direction contributed significantly to our understanding of the planets, the geometry of the solar system, and map making, helping to lay the foundation for modern astrophysics.

And Contributing in So Many Other Ways…

Of course, there are many others, this is just a sampling. The Herschel family was an astronomy powerhouse of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that included father William (Friedrich Wilhelm) and son John Frederick. Astronomer Vera Rubin, whose groundbreaking work on galaxy rotations led to the theory of dark matter, collaborated with her daughter, astronomer Judith Young, on galaxy studies. J.J. Thomson discovered the quantized “particle” nature of the electron and his son, George Paget Thomson, discovered its wave properties. Geologist Ho-Kwang (David) Mao, an expert on high pressure experiments, has co-authored several studies with his daughter, geophysicist Wendy Mao. The list could go on. Do you have a favorite parent-child team? Leave a comment and tell us about them!

Kendra Redmond

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