Saturday, November 08, 2014

George Dantzig >= 100

We celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Dantzig today. In his obituary post we talked about his work on optimization, particularly the simplex method for solving linear programs.

For this centenary let's recall the urban legend of the famous mathematician (I heard it as John von Neumann) who as a student wasn't paying close attention in class. The professor wrote down four of the major open problems in the field. von Neumann wrote them down thinking they were homework problems. The next day he went back to the professor, ashamed that he could only solve two of them.

What does this have to do with Dantzig? Turns out he is the true source of the legend. From Dantzig's Washington Post obituary:
In 1939, Dantzig resumed his studies at the University of California at Berkeley, studying statistics under mathematician Jerzy Neyman. An incident during his first year at Berkeley became a math-world legend.
As Dr. Dantzig recalled years later, he arrived late for class one day and saw two problems on the blackboard that he assumed were homework assignments. He copied them down, took them home and solved them after a few days. "The problems seemed to be a little harder to do than usual," he said.
On a Sunday morning six weeks later, an excited Neyman banged on his student's front door, eager to tell him that the homework problems he had solved were two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistics. 
"That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them," Dr. Dantzig recalled.


  1. What were these problems? If they were indeed "two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistics," surely he must have subsequently published them, possibly jointly with Neyman. Anyone has the references?

    1. Anon, you should check out this website, Google. You can find all kinds of information on it. For example, this web page, with the full story, including how it became an urban legend, quotes from Dantzig, and references to the two papers in Annals of Mathematical Statistics

  2. I have heard a similar story about Ketan Mulmuley and Dana Scott. Scott hands over a list of unsolved problems to Mulmuley, who's seeking a thesis topic, saying if he solves any, a thesis is assured. Mulmuley returns a few of weeks later with solutions to a couple of these problems. Not sure the extent to which the story is true or is an urban legend.