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I am wondering if there is some example of a mathematician or physicist who published other papers at the same time as their PhD work and independently of it which actually eclipsed the content of the PhD thesis.

The only semi-example I can think of immediately is Einstein, whose other publications in 1905 (especially on special relativity and the photoelectric effect) eclipsed his PhD thesis which was published in the same year. Although it contained important insights, it was somewhat forgotten to the point where he felt that he had to remind people about it.

Although this is a soft question, I didn't ask in Academia as I didn't want examples outside of mathematics and physics.

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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't know if "eclipse" is the right word here, but an example that comes to mind is Woodin. $\endgroup$ – Andrés E. Caicedo Mar 28 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ PhD is a relatively recent innovation, especially in England. Until the mid 20 century most British mathematicians had no PhD. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Mar 28 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ Facetious answer: Brian May is better known for writing and performing music during a 35 year break in the middle of doing his PhD on Zodiacal light. Admittedly songs are not scientific publications/papers and he probably didn't expect to complete his thesis (he was lucky nobody else had already published on the same topic!) $\endgroup$ – Ben C Mar 29 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ Brian May is a legend. $\endgroup$ – Tom Mar 29 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth: a paper by Douglas Hofstadter that was based on his thesis is still widely cited today. $\endgroup$ – Julius Mar 30 at 19:16
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Anatoly Karatsuba discovered the Karatsuba algorithm in 1960, and reported it to Kolmogorov who published it under his (Karatsuba's) name without his knowledge. It seems fair to say that this first example of a "divide and conquer" algorithm eclipsed Karatsuba's 1966 thesis on "The method of trigonometric sums and intermediate value theorems".

For a physics example (from my own university) I note George Uhlenbeck, who with Goudsmit introduced the electron spin in a 1925 publication, while his 1927 Ph.D. thesis on quantum statistics was much less influential. (Here is the story how two Ph.D. students discovered the electron spin, which was missed by a giant like Pauli.)

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I would contend that Claude Shannon's Master's thesis, "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits" (1936) far overshadows his PhD thesis, "An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics" (1940). I'm not exactly sure how reliable Google Scholar citation counts are, but for what it's worth, it lists 1423 citations for the former and only 89 for the latter.

EDITED TO ADD:

While Alan Turing's PhD Thesis, "Systems of Logic Based on Ordinals" (1938), introduced the concept of ordinal logic and also oracle machines, I suggest that it barely compares to the impact of his earlier paper, "On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem" (1937).

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    $\begingroup$ You should make the Turing answer a separate answer. $\endgroup$ – R Hahn Mar 29 at 4:43
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My father, mathematical economist Harold Kuhn, wrote his 1950 Princeton PhD thesis under the supervision of knot theorist Ralph Fox, leading to publication [Subgroup theorems for groups presented by generators and relations. Ann. of Math. (2) 56, (1952). 22–46.]. MathSciNet lists this with 5 citations as I type this.

Meanwhile, in his last year and half at Princeton, he was starting his very fruitful collaboration with Al Tucker. Their joint 1952 paper Nonlinear programming, in a conference proceedings from a 1950 conference has hundreds of citations on MathSciNet, as does a single authored paper from 1953 On extensive games and the problem of information. Published announcements of all of this, and also work with Dave Gale appeared back in 1950 and 1951.

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Gauss defended his PhD in 1799. The topic was the proof of the Fundamental Theorem of algebra. But in 1798 he wrote Disquistiones Arithmeticae laying the foundation of modern number theory (published in 1801). Moreover, in 1796 he started his famous Daybook, which contains plenty of results of fundamental importance (for example the expression of AGM in terms of an elliptic integral). The result he was especially proud with was the construction of the regular 17-gon (Heptadecagon) which is obtained in 1796.

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Solovay came up with his model of ZF in which all sets of reals are Lebesgue measurable in 1964, the same year that he defended his PhD thesis, which is on something else entirely (the Riemann-Roch theorem in differential geometry). I haven't been able to find an absolute statement that this was during his PhD, however.

Also, aren't these questions usually community wiki?

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  • $\begingroup$ It happened afterwards $\endgroup$ – Andrés E. Caicedo Mar 28 at 22:47
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrésE.Caicedo Thanks for the correction. I'll leave the answer in case someone else matches the dates up and comes to a similar conclusion. $\endgroup$ – Robert Furber Mar 28 at 22:50
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    $\begingroup$ To confirm what Robert is saying, Solovay writes in a footnote on the first page of his paper: "The main results of this paper were proved in March-July, 1964, and were presented at the July meeting of the Association for Symbolic Logic at Bristol, England". $\endgroup$ – Dan Petersen Mar 29 at 0:14
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Well, Art Garfunkel (Simon and Garfunkel) certainly has his other "publications" being more famous than his (never-completed) PhD in math.

Then there's Brian May from Queen, with a PhD in astrophysics, who is more famous for other publications.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not sure if guitar solos and songs with Queen count as academic publications, awesome as they are. $\endgroup$ – Tom Mar 30 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ In that line of thought, Ted Kaczynski is also more famous for work other than his PhD thesis. Also related to one of the funniest footnotes I've seen in a math paper jstor.org/stable/27643011 $\endgroup$ – Sasho Nikolov Mar 30 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ I looked up Kaczynski and his biography is the most bizarre thing I have ever seen. $\endgroup$ – Tom Mar 30 at 21:15
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Possibly Richard Feynman. His PhD Thesis was published in 1942 and he had a couple of publications before then (see his Google Scholar profile for the specific publications). He also started his work on the Manhattan project around the same time, which did not result in publications, but did have an impact.

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    $\begingroup$ Feynman's PhD thesis was not eclipsed by his work on the Manhattan project. He laid the groundwork for quantum electrodynamics and greatly influenced modern physics with his path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, which was the basis for the unification of quantum and statistical field theory. $\endgroup$ – Victoria M Mar 29 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure about this one, Feynman's PhD thesis turned out to be an important part of his output. $\endgroup$ – Tom Mar 29 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ "did have an impact" -- pun intended? $\endgroup$ – Pace Nielsen Mar 29 at 18:27
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Well, you mention Einstein. He is peculiar in that he received his Nobel prize in physics not for his work on relativity but for his work on light quantum energy which is sort of funny given that he was a staunch opponent of quantum physics.

With regard to work eclipsing a PhD thesis, who could omit George Dantzig who got a PhD in Mathematical Statistics because he came late to class and mistook 3 unsolved research problems on the blackboard for homework. He was only able to hand in solutions for two of them, exceeding the usual allotment of time for homework, but he did get class credits and the professor published the papers, later offering him to accept them in lieu of a PhD thesis if he handed them in with the proper formalia.

Dantzig was famous for coining the simplex algorithm for linear programming, and the question why he made his PhD in Mathematical Statistics, a discipline he is not particularly known for, came up a few times in interviews.

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  • $\begingroup$ I thought the papers of Dantzig you mention in fact constituted his Ph.D. thesis, so one can't really say that they "eclipsed" the thesis. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Beenakker Mar 30 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, apparently he didn't have a thesis and his professor told him to just put his solutions to those problems into a binder. $\endgroup$ – Tom Mar 30 at 21:17

protected by David Roberts Mar 31 at 13:04

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