How George Dantzig's Late Arrival to Class Made Math History

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In the math and science world, George Dantzig (1914–2005) is known as the Father of Linear Programming. But it's a time he was late for class that has made him an inspiration to millions around the world—even if they don't know him by name.


An Accidental Solution

Dantzig's story really begins at the Sorbonne University in Paris. That's where his father, German mathematician and linguist Tobias Dantzig, fell in love with a fellow student, translator Anja Ourisson. The couple married and relocated to Portland, Oregon where Anja gave birth to George on November 8, 1914. Given his parents' smarts (Tobias Dantzig later taught at Columbia University and Johns Hopkins, among other institutions), it seems unsurprising that Dantzig would inherit his parents' passion for learning, and pursue his own career in academia. After receiving his Bachelor of Science from University of Maryland in 1936, and a master's degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan, he went on to study for his PhD at University of California, Berkeley.

At the University of California, Dantzig was enrolled in statistics class taught by the renowned Polish statistician, Jerzy Neyman. One day in 1939, while Dantzig was running late for class, Neyman began his lesson by writing out two examples of "unsolvable problems" on the classroom blackboard. When Dantzig eventually did show up, he assumed they were part of his homework, and copied them in his notes. Although he found the problems more difficult than his usual assignments, he meticulously drafted out solutions for each one. Days later he handed them in with an apology to Neymen for being late again—thinking the problems were overdue. Weeks later, Neymen excitedly told Dantzig that he had solved the unsolvable, and not only that, but Neymen had prepared one of the solutions for publication in a mathematical journal. (This part of the story would have undoubtedly gone a little differently if texting and email was available back then!).

The Tardiness Heard 'Round the World

Dantzig went on to lead a stunning career. During WWII, he took a break from his studies to serve in the U.S. Air Force, a move that eventually resulted in his next breakthrough: the development of linear programming, as well as the simplex algorithm needed to solve it. His methods became so widespread and influential that in 1975 he was awarded the National Medal of Science by then-President Gerald Ford, and he remains known as the Father of Linear Programming to this day.

As for the incident of the unsolved problems, that became a legend that spread far beyond the math world, circulating in classrooms and boardrooms for generations as an amazing lesson on the power of motivation and positive thinking. It may have even provided the basis for math-heavy storyline of the 1997 Matt Damon and Ben Affleck film, Good Will Hunting. So, the next time you find yourself running behind, don't get frustrated—just remember that every so often, lateness can lead to genius!

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