Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

May 24, 2005

In Memoriam, George Dantzig

Filed under: — Different River @ 7:54 pm

Professor George B. Dantzig, one of the founders of linear programming, and the inventor of the simplex method, the most practical method for solving linear programs and one of the most successful mathematical algorithms of all time, has passed away at age 90.

For those of you who are not mathematically inclined (linear programming is a field of math, not computers): You should appreciate this as much as your mathematical friends, since the simplex method has found very widespread use. If you’ve ever used Mapquest or any other software to find directions, you’ve used (a modified version of) the simplex method. If you’ve every flown on an airplane, the crew was scheduled for the flight using (another modified version of) the simplex method. Those are just two of thousands of examples.

For those of you who are a bit more mathematically inclined: If you’ve taken more than two college-level math classes, you’ve probably heard the story of the student who arrived late to class, saw some math problems on the chalkboard, and copied them down assuming they were homework. He found them more difficult than most homework, but solved them anyway. It turned out they were not homework, but two famous unsolved problems the professor had shared with the class. Well, this really happened (even Snopes admits it), and George Dantzig was that student. (The professor was Jerzy Neyman.)

George Dantzig was one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century. His work was pioneering, creative, revolutionary, important theoretically, and extremely useful for solving real-world problems. The simplex method is revolutionary in part because it can’t be proved theoretically that it works as well as it does in practice. (“It works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.”) There have many mathematicians were more interested in problems that were theoretically elegant, but had no practical usefulness, like art for art’s sake. George Dantzig was not like that. His method was shown to be emminently useful, and for him that counted, even if it was not that “elegant.” (The simplex method can be proved to produce the right answer, but it can’t be proved that it will do so in a reasonable amount of time. However, in the overwhelming majority of real cases, it does.) He himself said in the opening sentence of his 1963 book Linear Programming and Extensions, “The final test of any theory is its capacity to solve the problems which originated it.”

He is also special to me personally the first “great mathematician” who was still alive when I was taking the course based on his work. Most of them passed on centuries, or at least decades, ago.

A biography, written on the occasion on Prof. Dantzig’s 80th birthday, is here. More information on linear programming is here.

(Hat tip: Slashdot.)

6 Responses to “In Memoriam, George Dantzig”

  1. romy Says:

    “Well, this really happened (even Snopes admits it), and George Dantzig was that student. (The professor was Jerzy Neyman.)”

    i thought that student was matt damon. no?

  2. Different River Says:

    Hah!

  3. The Glittering Eye Says:

    Catching my eye: morning A through Z
    Here’s what’s caught my eye this morning: Parody romance novel covers with titles like: “Quicky in the Swamp of Death”, “The Cleavage of Mary Ann Pushup”, and my favorite, “Scarlet Imposter”. Hat tip: Boing Boing (where …

  4. romy Says:

    um … hunh?

  5. Different River Says:

    romy: Click on the “Trackback by” link. It’s a trackback to The Glittering Eye’s daily post on things he finds interesting from his morning perusal of the ‘net. And yes, take a look at the parody romance novel covers. ;-)

  6. romy Says:

    oh … i get it! thanks.
    and those covers are KILLING me. heh. :)

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