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George Dantzig

From Academic Kids

George Bernard Dantzig (8 November 1914 in Portland, Oregon - 13 May 2005 in Palo Alto, California) was a mathematician who introduced the simplex algorithm and is considered the "Father of linear programming". He was the recipient of many honors, including the National Medal of Science in 1975, the John von Neumann Theory Prize in 1974. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He earned bachelor's degrees in mathematics and physics from the University of Maryland in 1936, his master's degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan, and his PhD from UC Berkeley in 1946. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1976.

Dantzig's father, Tobias Dantzig, was a Russian mathematician who had studied with Henri Poincaré in Paris. Tobias married a fellow Sorbonne University student, Anja Ourisson, and the couple immigrated to the United States.

An actual event in Dantzig's life became the origin of a famous urban legend in 1939 while he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Near the beginning of a class that Dantzig was late for, professor Jerzy Neyman wrote two examples of famously unsolved statistics problems on the blackboard. When Dantzig later arrived he assumed that the two problems were a homework assignment and wrote them down. According to Dantzig, the problems "seemed to be a little harder than usual", but a few days later he handed in completed solutions for both, still believing that they were an assignment that was past due. Six weeks later Dantzig received a visit from an excited professor Neyman, who had prepared one of Dantzig's solutions for publication in a mathematical journal. Years later another researcher, Abraham Wald, was preparing to publish a paper which arrived at a conclusion for the second problem, and included Dantzig as its co-author when he learned of the earlier solution.

This story began to spread, and was used as a motivational lesson demonstrating the power of positive thinking. Over time Dantzig's name was removed and facts were altered, but the basic story persisted in the form of an urban legend. A circumstance similar to this story appears in 1997's Good Will Hunting, where a brilliant janitor unexpectedly solves an unsolved mathematical problem that an MIT professor has put up to baffle his graduate students.

When World War II erupted, Dantzig's graduate studies at Berkeley were suspended, and he became Head of the Combat Analysis Branch of the Air Force's Headquarters Statistical Control, which had to deal with the logistics of supply chains and management of hundreds of thousands of items and people. The job provided the "real world" problems which linear programming would come to solve.

George Dantzig received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1946. In 1952 he became a research mathematician at the Rand Corporation, where he began implementing linear programming on the corporation's computers. In 1960, he was hired by his alma mater, where he taught computer science, eventually becoming the chairman of the Operations Research Center. In 1966 he took a similar position at Stanford University. He stayed with Stanford until his retirement in the 1990s.

In addition to his significant work in developing the simplex method and furthering linear programming, Dantzig also advanced the fields of decomposition theory, sensitivity analysis, complementary pivot methods, large-scale optimization, nonlinear programming, and programming under uncertainty. The first issue of the SIAM Journal on Optimization in 1991 was dedicated to him.

The Mathematical Programming Society honored Dantzig by creating the Dantzig Award, bestowed every three years since 1982 on one or two people who have made a significant impact in the field of mathematical programming.

Dantzig died on May 13, 2005 in his home in Palo Alto, California due to complications from diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Coincidentally, this date was a Friday the 13th.

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