Marginal Revolution recently asked “What are the greatest dissertations ever?” It’s an economics blog, so the focus was on economics, and also on academia in general. Candidates include Gauss on the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra, Claude Shannon on information, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and Marie Curie on “radio-active substances”.
What about in ecology and evolution?
Here’s an opening bid off the top of my head: Bob Holt’s classic 1977 paper defining (though not, as Bob would be the first to note, discovering) and thoroughly modeling the concept of apparent competition. That was part of his dissertation, if I’m not mistaken. Further back, Robert MacArthur’s classic work on niche partitioning in warblers was his dissertation work.
I ask this question mostly for fun, but thinking about it leads to thinking about larger issues. Like, do ecologists and evolutionary biologists tend to do their best (or maybe most creative) work when young? I’m sure you can point to examples for and against, making any statistical tendency hard to discern.
Asking this question also seems like a fun way for folks (including me!) to learn a bit about the history of ecology and evolution. And hopefully, reading about truly great science done by graduate students will make for inspiring reading for today’s graduate students. 🙂
UPDATE: In the comments, Ric Charnov (himself the author of one of the greatest ecology dissertations ever, on optimal foraging theory) passes on a link to where you can read the “story behind the paper”-type commentaries for many classic ecology papers (and papers from other fields) from before 1990. Organized by the year the commentaries were originally published, not by the year of the classic papers being commented upon, so you may have to browse a bit to find what you want. But it’s worth the effort.