Thursday, March 26, 2015

Genealogy, like melodies, is all about those 'permutations and combinations' we learned in school

Every wonder how a composer get a endless stream of unique melodies from 'just seven notes' ?

 Ever wonder how researchers find people lost to history, with only a tiny handful of facts to guide them ?

Math popularizers explain all those wonderfully different melodies and all those wonderful genealogical successes by the simple arithmetic of combinations and permutations.

Why all melodies are so unique

First, remember that most successful melodies don't actually stay in just one key and one octave, which is where all this hot-aired talk about 'only seven (diatonic) notes' comes from.

They always have a few accidentals (chromatic notes) added and usually extend the melody range up to one octave and a fifth --- giving us about 20 notes to work with on each step of the melody.

In reality, to be successful, each new note in a melody is best restricted to a handful of choices most of time (the interval between two successive notes is more likely to be some kind of a third or a second than a flat seventh for example).

But good melodies are good mostly because they do throw in unexpected surprises, in the interval department among others.

So for any average note, the next note can truly be any of ten notes higher or lower in pitch.

(It can also remain at the same pitch or even remain silent.)

In an average dozen note long 'tune', that is already billions of choices (basically 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 etc) - and we haven't even considered the fact that each note can be one of about a dozen common durations.

(Half notes, 16th notes, tied notes, triplets,swing 8ths, etc - on and on.)

Now we're up to trillions of choices.

Thrown in the fact that every successful tune has a meter and musical style indicated at the top of the score sheet that imply* a built in set of expectations of varying accents (loudness,brightness,forcefulness) on each note.

Accents that we are also free to ignore, momentarily, to provide some more of those wonderful musical surprises.

Now we're climbing into the cosmos of infinite choices.

While melody building adds choice , genealogical research reduces choice

Genealogy also starts with just a few notes, err, facts.

Say just a person's first name, last name, year of birth and the area where they lived.

So Columbia Presbyterian hospital SBE patient Charles Aronson, born 1913 and living in the New York City area in October 1940 and again in April 1944.

But a melody is truly unique only over the run of its dozen or so notes - it builds up it uniqueness.

By contrast, finding a lost historical figure requires , in a real sense, that each note in a tune be totally unique in its pitch x duration x accent - it seeks to cut down a long long humdrum melody to a single unique note.

Genealogy is helped by the fact that the choices for each of its equivalents to pitch, duration and accent are much, much larger than that of music.

For at any moment in time there are only about 100 possible birth years involving living people.

But with the sort of dead people that we can hope to find more about (say the fairly recent past of the last 200 years), we now get a choice of several hundred birth years.

Even when shared amongst ten billion people (counting everyone who ever lived in the past 200 years), we still find that , on average, only about 50 million people shared each birth year.

But that reflects today's huge populations and drop in childhood deaths --- probably only a million people worldwide survived childhood to share the birth year of 1913 by the year 1940.

We also have a first name.

Now Charles is a very common name in western culture - but there are literally hundreds of names as common as Charles in our culture and in total tens and tens of thousands of possible first names worldwide.

Let us guess wildly and say  100,000 people in 1940  had the name Charles.

Aronson is a relatively uncommon last name in a world of tens and tens of thousands of last names.

Uncommon except among Eastern European Jews immigrants - two million who lived in NYC area between 1913 and 1940.

Maybe 100,000 people were named Aronson worldwide in 1940.

So say 5000 people named Aronson lived in NYC area in those years and 20,000 in total in the two Americas.

(In wartime, I don't feel anyone but from the two Americas would have/could have travelled to New York to treat an illness --- particularly a disease mostly found among the poor.)

How many were both Charles and Aronson in all of the two Americas ?

At best, I feel maybe 400.

How many are Charles Aronsons in the Americas  born in 1913 ?


At least as far as I have found by searching the half dozen national and local census produced between 1915 and 1940 in the US and Canada.

One born and raised in the NYC area and living on Vyse Avenue in the Bronx in 1940 , the other born in the Mid-West who wandered widely over his life - living in the metropolitan Detroit area in 1940.

Now it is still a very, very remotely possible the Detroit Charles Aronson might have travelled specially a thousand miles, only to end up to a public (charity) ward in a 1940 NYC hospital.

There to be treated as extensively as all public charity cases are always treated (joke !).

And to treated for a rapidly invariably fatal disease by a doctor who had never been known for treating this disease, until now.

But it doesn't seem likely, now does it - if one is going to die at the hands of a relative amateur - why not do so more cheaply and comfortably at home ?

And remember the known medical history of our Charles Aronson is relatively extensive and seems to indicate he remained in close contact with the doctors at Columbia Presbyterian in 1940-1941 and 1944-1945 - again suggesting he was from the NY area.

(For wartime travel was almost as difficult within America as it was travelling to America in the war years.)

So of the literally thousands of metropolitan areas in the two Americas, I have further restricted my choice down to just one - albeit by far the biggest one, if looking for Aronson names !

These are the cumulative reasons  why I have focussed all my efforts in finding the Charles Aronson who was the first patient in history to receive an antibiotic, upon this Bronx Charles Aronson.....

* My good friend, Queens Professor Margaret Little , had a good classical education on piano but had never heard any Rolling Stones songs and tried, one day in 1980, to play some of their songs from a conventional piano score.

She accurately followed the score, including the meter, but did not understand the implied musical conventions. The results were - my other good friend Paul Withers would agree - interesting !

They sounds totally not at all like the actual tune.

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