Which are the greatest dissertations?

by on May 20, 2014 at 4:08 am in Economics, Education, Science | Permalink

Robert Saunders writes to me:

Thanks for posting the Joseph Stiglitz dissertation. It’s always great to see the dissertations of Nobel winners.

For a future post, I thought a good topic might be “best dissertations ever” across fields. Obviously, you’ll know most about economics (assume Nash and Arrow are contenders here?), but I wonder about physics, biology, chemistry, history, etc. Not sure what an English dissertation looks like except in writing (a novel? collection of short stories?), but them, too.  Would make for an interesting comments section.

And thanks for the never ending stream of great posts across the years,

In economics Michael Spence on job market signaling comes to mind, as does Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit.  (Paul Samuelson’s renowned dissertation was mostly a wrong turn for mathematical economics, even though it got the ball rolling.)  In English there is Harold Bloom’s doctoral dissertation on Shelley and surely much more.  Elsewhere, Marie Curie did something on “radio-active substances” and Jane Goodall covered the chimpanzee.  There is Claude Shannon on information, Max Weber on the Protestant Ethic, and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.  How about Gauss and Turing?  Might de Broglie come in first overall?

I’ll say no to Marx’s “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.”  But how about some of those Russian mathematicians in the mid to late 20th century?  They came up with their key contributions quite early in life and I suspect some of those were in their doctoral dissertations.

1 GiT May 20, 2014 at 4:25 am

Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

Foucault’s History of Madness.

Going even more jejeune, Carole Pateman’s undergraduate thesis was published as Participation and Democracy.

2 Thor May 20, 2014 at 10:44 pm

Gauss, Nash, for sure. What was Keynes’ dissertation? I can’t recall.

Foucault’s History of Madness. You must be joking. “Of” is the only true word out of those three.

3 David McDougall May 22, 2014 at 11:30 am

Not sure if Habermas should count, since it was his habilitation rather than his PhD. If it does, seconded.

4 honkie please May 20, 2014 at 4:30 am

Nary a mention of a gender theorist?

5 andrew' May 20, 2014 at 6:28 am

In economics, this actually would be extremely well interesting.

6 Larry Siegel May 20, 2014 at 4:42 am

“Portfolio Selection” by Harry Markowitz.

Investment management was the sleepiest of fields until Markowitz. Now it’s one of the most lucrative industries in the world. Are investors better off? I’m pretty sure that they are, because of the diversification that he recommended, but investment managers are *definitely* better off.

I’m just wild about Harry.

7 Ballab May 20, 2014 at 4:43 am

Philosophy: David Lewis’s Convention

8 John Thacker May 20, 2014 at 5:16 am

In physics, Josephson did his prediction of Josephson junctions / quantum tunneling as a dissertation. That dissertation won him a Nobel Prize a decade or so later.

9 John Thacker May 20, 2014 at 5:22 am

Also, Gauss’s dissertation in Math was the proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra.

10 mb May 20, 2014 at 6:45 am

That is hard to beat!

11 RR May 20, 2014 at 10:42 am

This was my first thought too.

12 Anonymous May 20, 2014 at 5:19 am

Before I had finished reading, I was going to suggest De Broglie.

If by “the greatest”, we mean the ones with the most impact, the greatest dissertations in physics and matematics are bound to be very old since the fields are so mature that it is almost impossible to make such far reaching discoveries as the great physicists were routinely making a century ago. A possible exception could be Brian Josephson’s dissertation which I couldn’t find anywhere.

13 John Thacker May 20, 2014 at 5:28 am

Josephson’s dissertation is apparently not allowed to be borrowed from Cambridge’s library, though the basic discovery was also published in Physics Letters here a year or two before his thesis.

14 andrew' May 20, 2014 at 6:32 am

They’re doin it wrong!

15 Anon May 20, 2014 at 6:20 pm

Frank Wilczek won a Nobel Prize in Physics for work he did when he was 21.

16 Alexei Sadeski May 20, 2014 at 5:22 am

Whoever came up with triggering.

17 W.E. Heasley May 20, 2014 at 5:26 am

‘….“best dissertations ever” across fields…’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865, Charles Dodgson

18 John Thacker May 20, 2014 at 5:32 am

Kissinger’s dissertation was published (somewhat expanded) as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 a few years later, though the dissertation itself is difficult to find.

19 Clark May 20, 2014 at 5:37 am

How about Loren Kohnfelder’s 1978 Bachelor’s thesis “Toward a Practical Public-key Cryptosystem”, in which invented the idea of certificates?


20 brad May 20, 2014 at 10:07 am

Also Merkle’s thesis in 1979, though he had developed the ideas earlier:

21 Anon. May 20, 2014 at 5:55 am

Bachelier’s Théorie de la spéculation. Black & Scholes got a Nobel for doing the same thing 7 decades later.

22 Highgamma May 20, 2014 at 10:54 pm

I second Bachelier.

23 Larry Siegel May 20, 2014 at 11:35 pm

If I hadn’t already nominated Markowitz I’d be happy to “third” Bachelier.

24 D May 20, 2014 at 6:07 am

“A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits” by Claude Shannon has to be in the list of most influential Master’s theses of all time.

25 andrew' May 20, 2014 at 6:33 am

They’re doin it wrong!

26 John Thacker May 20, 2014 at 7:17 am

Ah yes, Shannon’s is another good one.

27 Dave Barnes May 20, 2014 at 9:53 am


28 Timothy May 20, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Came here to put Shannon, though I think his paper that started Information Theory is more influential.

29 Andreas Baumann May 20, 2014 at 6:23 am

Weber’s dissertation was called “Development of the Principle of Joint Liability and the Separate Fund in the Public Trading Company out of Household and Trade Communities in Italian Cities”; his Habilitationsschrift was called “Die römische Agrargeschichte in ihrer Bedeutung für das Staats- und Privatrecht”.

The Protestantism book was much later.

30 andrew' May 20, 2014 at 6:31 am

John Burr Williams theory of investment value was based on his dissertation

31 andrew' May 20, 2014 at 10:53 am

Correction, he published it prior to the dissertation, so he gets bonus points for possibly the coolest way to graduate.

32 bliksem May 20, 2014 at 6:45 am

John Nash’s dissertation on non-cooperative games maybe deserves to be mentioned? (Not saying that it is up there with e.g. Marie Curie’s work, but surely it made a big impact as dissertations go…)

33 Axa May 20, 2014 at 7:18 am

Here’s Marie Curie doctoral dissertation https://archive.org/details/recherchessurles00curi Amazing thing is that most of it is understandable =)

34 Greg Heslop May 20, 2014 at 6:54 am

No mention of Gary Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination? Immensely important contribution for the development of economic imperialism in addition to its many other merits.

35 bliksem May 20, 2014 at 6:57 am

Candidate for most famous non-dissertation: Freeman Dyson. He rarely fails to mention how proud he is of the fact that he never got a PhD. Excerpt from a recent Wired interview (http://www.wired.com/2014/03/quanta-freeman-dyson-qa/):

“I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy. So I have opposed it all my life without any success at all. I was lucky because I got educated in World War II and everything was screwed up so that I could get through without a Ph.D. and finish up as a professor. Now that’s quite impossible. So, I’m very proud that I don’t have a Ph.D. and I raised six children and none of them has a Ph.D., so that’s my contribution.”

36 dearieme May 20, 2014 at 8:28 am

Unfortunately I do have a PhD but at least I persuaded my daughter out of doing one. Mind you, doing a PhD might be a fine retirement project.

37 bliksem May 20, 2014 at 10:16 am

Now, if only your daughter can convince her children to settle for a BA in some or the other illiberal art, and they persuade their offspring that a high school diploma is fine, and they convince their children that a small helping of home-schooling is enough, then your whole clan’s minds can return to an uncorrupted state of nature in far fewer generations than it took to corrupt it;-)

38 Frank May 20, 2014 at 1:26 pm

@bliksem ( are you South African?) and @dearieme. I am semi-retired and considering doing a PhD. Is it worth the grind? I work part-time at a local university so it could help consolidate my position, but I hate academic and corporate BS, I am not a good employee.

39 Klipdrift May 20, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Saul Kripke has done ok without a PhD

40 bliksem May 20, 2014 at 5:30 pm

I certainly thought it was worth the grind. (Actually, I did not really think it was a grind, at all – it was a privilege and a pleasure.) As for the BS, yes, there’s a lot of it, but I reckon there’s less of it than in the corporate world. Or maybe it is just easier in academia to simply ignore the BS and get away with it. Anyway, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing with my life.

And yes, I am South African – or maybe I should rather say I used to be South African. Left a long time ago.

41 Buce May 20, 2014 at 7:06 am

I’m pretty sure Braudel’s “Mediterranian in the Time of Philip II” would count as a dissertation,”

Kitteridge the Shakespeare scholar never got a PhD. But who would examine me, he asked.

42 The PolyCapitalist May 20, 2014 at 7:35 am

Paul Samuelson felt that Irving Fisher’s was the best economics dissertation of all time.

43 anonymous May 20, 2014 at 7:42 am

Professor, this is *not* a nice thing to do to those of your loyal readers who are procrastin(oops, I mean) diligently writing up….

44 Todd May 20, 2014 at 7:43 am

Francis Crick’s dissertation on X-Ray diffraction and protein structure

45 dearieme May 20, 2014 at 8:30 am

An argument for not doing a PhD when you are but a lad?

46 Todd May 20, 2014 at 8:36 am

And also an argument for not doing a PhD in your original field, maybe? Or that the second dissertation attempt is better than the first?

47 Alan Gunn May 20, 2014 at 8:09 am

For law (a very small collection, because most of us don’t get a doctorate if you don’t count the J.D., which is really just an LL.B): Henry Manne’s dissertation on insider trading.

48 luzandjim@woosh.co.nz May 20, 2014 at 8:13 am

Friedman’s disseration on medical incomes.

49 luzandjim@woosh.co.nz May 20, 2014 at 8:15 am

Stigler’s disseration on production theories in the marginal revolution

50 luzandjim@woosh.co.nz May 20, 2014 at 8:17 am

Eugene fama on capital asset pricing.

Most of modern finance theory came out of dissertations.

Mincer’s dissertation on female labour supply.

51 Jim Bang May 20, 2014 at 10:50 am

1. definitely no;
2. good, but I can think of several that were better.

52 Jim Rose May 20, 2014 at 8:20 am

Could my last two posts be deleted because I posted my email. Late at night hrre.

53 Scott May 20, 2014 at 8:21 am

I’m surprised no one has mentioned Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.”

54 Norman Pfyster May 20, 2014 at 9:58 am

Tyler did.

55 Willitts May 20, 2014 at 10:28 am

Mention it? I can’t pronounce it.

56 Florian May 20, 2014 at 8:48 am

Not a dissertation but great science nonetheless:

“De arte venandi cum avibus” by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

Frederick was among the first to empoly modern scientific methods.
(Proper experiments and observations. Instead of relying on Aristotle and the Bible for absolute truth).
Plus: This book is to this day the very best on its subject. What other scientific publication has withstood the test of time for almost 800 years?

quote from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_arte_venandi_cum_avibus
“It is notable that Frederick II mainly confides in his own observations and experiments: he experimented with eggs to see if they would hatch only by the warmth of the sun; he tried to find out if birds used their sense of smell while hunting by covering the eyes of vultures. The author keeps to his intention, formulated in the preface, to describe the things as they are (“que sunt, sicut sunt”). It is a scientific book, approaching the subject from Aristotle, whom he likes to contradict”

57 Thomas Colthurst May 20, 2014 at 9:33 am

In number theory, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tate's_thesis is referred to all the time.

This Straight Dope thread (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=548885) mentions Hugh Everett’s PhD thesis which introduced the Many Worlds interpretation of QM, and Ed Catmull’s thesis, which made numerous advances in computer graphics, including Z-buffering, texture mapping and bicubic patches.

Oh, and speaking of computer graphics, http://www.mrgeek.me/lists/12-most-famous-phd-theses-in-history/ lists Ivan Sutherland’s 1963 PhD thesis on Sketchpad, which was the world’s first graphical user interface.

58 David R. Henderson May 20, 2014 at 9:46 am

Gary Becker’s dissertation on the economics of discrimination.

59 Willitts May 20, 2014 at 9:49 am

Agree. This was a huge influence on me to leave law and pursue economics and finance.

60 Aretino May 20, 2014 at 9:56 am

Cecilia Payne’s dissertation “Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars”. Astronomer Otto Struve called it “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”. It challenged the prevailing view that the composition of the sun is the same as the earth, and argued instead that it was composed primarily of hydrogen.

61 prior probability May 20, 2014 at 9:59 am

Not to nit-pick, but Wiittgenstein’s Tractatus was not really a dissertation in the traditional sense …

62 Neal May 20, 2014 at 10:17 am

Riemann’s dissertation founded the appropriately-named field of Riemannian geometry. I’m given to understand that in it, he introduced intrinsic geometry and invented Riemannian metrics.

In his dissertation, Serre basically invented the Leray-Serre spectral sequence and used it to compute higher homotopy groups of spheres. This was enough to net him a Fields just a couple of years later.

63 Pearl May 24, 2014 at 5:30 pm

I’ll second Riemann. As my former geometry professor tells the story, he had to list three topics on which he would be willing to be examined on orally, with the understanding that his examiners would nearly always choose the first topic. He listed geometry as his third choice as a kind of throwaway, only to be thrown for a loop when that was the one chosen. He struggled for a few weeks to prepare and ended up coming up with Riemannian geometry.

64 Another Tom (though there are others) May 20, 2014 at 10:18 am

In IR Theory: Ken Waltz’s “Man, the State, and War,” though I’ve never bothered to track down the actual PhD thesis to see how much revision, if any, he did.

65 Owen May 20, 2014 at 10:21 am

According to a story told by my undergraduate physics professor, Max Planck had first proposed that energy was quantized while still a student. His oral examiners challenged that if this were so there must be a fundamental unit of energy. Planck then derived the Planck constant and turned in his work on about two pages and the calculations and explanation was accepted as his doctoral dissertation.

66 RR May 20, 2014 at 10:35 am

According to Wikipedia …”in February 1879 defended his dissertation, Über den zweiten Hauptsatz der mechanischen Wärmetheorie (On the second law of thermodynamics).”
His work on Quantum theory seems to have come later in 1900.

67 Jay May 20, 2014 at 10:31 am

Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony might be up there for philosophy.

68 Thor May 20, 2014 at 10:46 pm

Are you being ironic?

If I’m not mistaken, Niels Bohr’s son wrote a one page dissertation. Unrelated trivia.

69 Jim Bang May 20, 2014 at 10:32 am

I don’t even see a close second to Ken Arrow in economics. Only economist I’ve heard talked about for a second Nobel.

70 Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo May 20, 2014 at 10:33 am

William Cronon’s “Nature’s Metropolis” comes to mind. Bancroft winner. Apparently the book was his dissertation—not a revision thereof: http://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/william-cronon-biography.

71 J O May 20, 2014 at 10:49 am

Shannon’s Doctoral Thesis was on algebra for theoretical genetics. Information theory was first proposed in the Bell Technical System Journal a bit later.

72 Jason Smith May 20, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Yeah, I came to correct that too. His Master’s thesis was on algebraic analysis of switching/relay circuits that basically said you can do anything with Boolean algebra — which is quite an achievement, but it’s not the later revolutionary information theory work.

No one has mentioned Einstein’s accurate determination of Avogadro’s number?

73 Chris May 20, 2014 at 10:59 am

Henri Lebesgue. Invented measure theory in his thesis, which is basically the underpinnings of all modern analysis, esp. probability. That would seem to go at the top, with Nash (23 pages!).

74 JW May 20, 2014 at 11:04 am

G.A. Cohen’s ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence’ was a development of his PhD dissertation, though published in altered form some years after his PhD completion. It had a significant academic impact at the time, although the analytical Marxism that it brought into being has faded in relevance over the last two decades (for better or worse).

75 Thor May 20, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Wasn’t he a member of the “No Bullshit” Marxism group?

There oughta be a “No Bullshit” French Philosophy group…

76 David Brown May 20, 2014 at 11:09 am

This one doesn’t technically count, but it is quite amusing.

Lars Onsager submitted his work on reciprocal relations in non-equillibrium thermodynamics to the Norwegian Insititute of Technology in 1929.

It was rejected. He won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for it!

He almost got rejected for a Ph.D. a second time. While teaching at the Yale Chemistry department in the 1930’s, it was realized that he didn’t have a Ph.D. They suggested he just submit his work on the reciprocal relations. He refused and insisted on giving them something new. That dissertation was so mathematical that the Chemistry department couldn’t understand it.

They were going to refuse him a Ph.D. again, but the math department thought it was completely amazing. Yale Math told Yale Chemistry that “if you don’t give this man a Ph.D., we will” and Yale Chemistry folded.

77 Jr May 20, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Nash’s dissertation might be one of the best in economics but it was actually submitted for a PhD in mathematics, and it is not close to being the best mathematics dissertation ever.

78 Govco May 20, 2014 at 1:07 pm

I defy you to find a more ironic dissertation than Saif al-Islam Gaddaffi’s “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions” at the London School of Economics.

79 Jay May 20, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Certainly Kurt Godel’s Die Vollständigkeit der Axiome des logischen Funktionenkalküls which provided the first proof of the Incompleteness Theorem was teh most important math dissertation in the last 200 years.

80 Dave May 20, 2014 at 2:08 pm

I’d vote for Godel. But I’ll throw Fama’s “The Behavior of Stock Market Prices” and maybe Markowitz’s thesis out there.

81 Donald Pretari May 20, 2014 at 3:02 pm

“Merleau-Ponty first taught at Chartres, then became a tutor at the École Normale Supérieure, where he was awarded his doctorate on the basis of two important books: La structure du comportement (1942) and Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945).”

This is impressive, but possibly not what you meant by dissertation.

82 Jermaine May 20, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Arthur Schopenhauer’s On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (German: Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde).

83 BCS May 20, 2014 at 5:12 pm

In analytic philosophy, David Chalmers’ thesis stands out, whose ground breaking book “The Conscious Mind” was largely based on the dissertation he wrote at Indiana.

84 y81 May 20, 2014 at 5:38 pm

My recollection is that Mancur Olsen’s “The Logic of Collective Action” started out as his dissertation, so it would certainly be on my list.

85 sk May 20, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Anthony Downs’ has been cited over 21,000 times and is the hallmark of the subfield of American Politics.

86 Omar May 20, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Saul Kripke wrote a completeness theorem for modal logic when he was a teenager, and I seem to remember reading somewhere that it was a math & science fair project for his high school in Nebraska.

87 HM May 20, 2014 at 11:03 pm

Gunnar Myrdal’s “Prisbildningsproblemet och föränderligheten” (The problem of price formation and change) uses one chapter (not the main part of the thesis) to introduce imperfect information and show why imperfect information need to be asymmetric to create inefficiencies in credit markets. He uses this insight to derive a wedge between the returns on internal and external finance . He suggests that asymmetric information should form the basis for analysis of corporate finance, financial intermediation, and credit law. Unfortunately it hasn’t been translated to English.

88 Ray Lopez May 21, 2014 at 1:48 am

First hit from Google yields…

http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=548885 (“What’s the most famous PhD dissertation paper? Is there such a thing? “)

“However, if we consider non-science, there was John F. Kennedy’s senior thesis, While England Slept, which was later published and helped him make his reputation. Not a Ph.D. thesis, of course, but still student work. …I think Svante Arrhenius was initially given a very low level for his dissertation on ionic solutions. That’s the theory he received the Nobel prize for in 1903. It is only famous among chemists though. “

89 Gary F May 21, 2014 at 10:19 am

Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle?

90 Anon May 21, 2014 at 1:56 pm

One of the great unfinished dissertations must be Larry Page’s “BackRub” project.

91 polly May 22, 2014 at 6:23 am

Nobody came back with Keynes’? It’s on probability. Lawyers love it.

“Another set of practical men, the lawyers, have been more subtle in this matter than the philosophers’ i.e. by not allowing claim for too-remote damages.

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