How George Dantzig changed the world

He turned up late for class and inspired the opening scene of the 1997 Hollywood block buster Good Will Hunting staring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Robin Williams. But more importantly he changed the world.

George Bernard Dantzig was the son of a mathematician, was a mathematical genius. Dantzig was born in Portland, Oregon on November 8, 1914.

His father, Tobias Dantzig, had been born in Latvia but, after being caught distributing anti-Tsarist propaganda, fled to Paris, where he studied under Henri Poincaré and met Anja Ourisson, then at the Sorbonne. They married and emigrated to Oregon, where Dantzig took jobs as a lumberjack and navvy.

Though the family was initially very poor, Tobias Dantzig had ambitions for his children. George was named after George Bernard Shaw in the hope that he would become a writer, while his younger brother Henry took his name from Poincaré, and did in fact become a mathematician.

Tobias Dantzig eventually took a PhD at the University of Indiana, and his wife, after taking a degree in French, became a linguist at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

George Dantzig received degrees from Maryland (1936) and the University of Michigan before earning his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1946.

While at Berkeley, he made an immediate impact. Danzig arrived late to class. His lecturer Jerzy Neyman had written two problems on the blackboard. Dantzig assumed they were homework questions. He duly copied them down. A few days later he  apologised to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework. Dantzig would later say that the problems seemed to be a little harder than usual. Danzig asked him if he still wanted the work. He told me to throw it on his desk.

About six weeks later, one Sunday morning about eight o’clock, Dantzig and his wife Anne were awakened by someone banging on our front door. It was Neyman.

He rushed in with papers in hand, all excited, “I’ve just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication”.

For a minute Dantzig had no idea what he was talking about. To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard which Dantzig had solved was in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. Neyman’s excitement was the first inkling Danzig had that there was anything special about them.

George Dantzig worked for the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, served as Chief of the Combat Analysis Branch for USAF Headquarters Statistical Control and as Mathematical Advisor for USAF Headquarters, Research Mathematician for RAND Corporation, and Professor of Operations Research and Chairman of the Operations Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

While making calculations for the Air Force in 1947, Dr. Dantzig developed the simplex algorithm to facilitate programming (military jargon for planning, rather than today’s computer use) in a linear structure. This enabled mathematicians, economists and others to consider large numbers of variables in broad reaching decisions about the production and allocation of airplanes, their parts and raw materials.

The field that resulted, called linear programming, has been applied subsequently to utilities, oil refineries, investments and the steel industry to aid in planning and efficiency under uncertain conditions.

It has also been used to prepare cost-effective nutritional diets and coordinate the routes of commercial aircraft. Dantzig confessed to being surprised by the “tremendous power” of his method, which he explored in computing after his move to the Rand Corporation in 1952.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Dr. Dantzig broadened his simplex method to economic models, to reduce paper waste in the printing industry and to other problems of applied mathematics.

He was instrumental in assisting Nobel Economics Prize Winner Harry Markowitz develop Modern Portfolio Theory. A theory that impacts how superannuation and pension money is invested around the world today.

With another researcher, Philip Wolfe, Dantzig developed the Dantzig-Wolfe decomposition principle, which is intended to simplify oversized problems in planning and logistics involving vast amounts of data.

In 1960, he became a professor of operations research at Berkeley. He moved to Stanford University in 1966 and continued to teach and publish into the 1990’s as a Professor of Operations Research and Computer Science, Co-Director of the Systems Optimization Laboratory, and Director of the PILOT Energy-Economic Model Project.

Dr. Dantzig’s other interests included game theory, quadratic programming and a means of studying problems that involve significant uncertainty, known as stochastic programming.

Professor Dantzig’s seminal work has laid the foundation for much of the field of systems engineering and is widely used in network design and component design in computer, mechanical, and electrical engineering.

Dr. Dantzig was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and recipient of the National Medal of Science, plus eight honorary degrees. He served at the thirteenth president of TIMS (one of the societies that merged to form INFORMS) and won the first ORSA/TIMS von Neumann Theory Prize, the National Medal of Science and the Hervey prize.

His work inspired the formation of the Mathematical Programming Society, a major section of the Society for industrial and applied mathematics, and numerous professional and academic bodies. Generations of Professor Dantzig’s students have become the leaders in all facets of society.

Dr. Dantzig died on May 13, 2005 of complications from diabetes and heart disease.

Article by Shartru Wealth – base source document: https://www.informs.org/Recognize-Excellence/INFORMS-Prizes-Awards/George-B.-Dantzig-Dissertation-Award/Who-Was-George-B.-Dantzig

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