Thursday, August 28, 2008

George Bernard Dantzig, The Man



A story shared in many classrooms, often begins the same, that at some indeterminate time, in some university hall, a math student shows up late, and copies down some problems, mistaking them to be homework. I have heard teachers tell the story at least a handful of times, and decided to see what I could find. How did the beginning of George Bernard Danzig's life as a mathematician get elevated to myth?

One Sunday morning a couple of weeks later he came running over to my house and banged on the door. We lived upstairs. I came down and opened the door. He rushed in and said he had written an introduction to the problems I had solved and was going to submit the paper for publication. It turns out that those two problems were two very well-known, unsolved statistical problems. I had solved them both.

That's quite a story.

It has since become sort of an urban legend. Many years later, this fellow (Don) Knuth — he's a very well-known computer scientist — was bicycling down the street one day at Stanford, and he comes up to me and says, "Do you know you are influencing religion in middle America?"

He said that he had heard a sermon while he was visiting in Illinois or some place like that in which the preacher told what was essentially my experience with the homework problems to make a point about positive thinking.

The point was this: If I had known that those were famous unsolved statistical problems, I never would have tried to solve them.


Dr. Dantzig was an incredible man, who made quite a story that has been recounted in classrooms across the world for decades. That is precisely how he became a legend. As a legend, pieces of his story disappeared, often his name, when he was a student, and what he went on to become. Dantzig was hoisted up to the class of legend, because he was late to class. He became a legend, because he was able of seeing a math problem no other math mind had seen it.

Even then, we do not know for sure no one had solved the problem before him. It is amazing to think perhaps this man's story can not stand up on its own. Many people chose to embellish it, change it, add motives, and create a story to address their own agendas.

Well, I suppose that if I wanted to establish an agenda of my own, it would be to clear away mythology , and find our way into a huge, exciting world that is fascinating all by itself. I suppose it is wonderful that we have so many positive thinkers in the world. From the books of Norman Vincent Peale, and by the power of Robert Schuler's preaching at his Crystal Cathedral, we have built a wonderful structure edifying positive thinking, and the greatness that can be achieved from it.

Does it not today seem a little silly that with so many wonderfully legitimate stories to substantiate the ideas of the positive thinking gurus that we should try to push forth a story when, with complete humility, the subject of the story admits the unreliability, the frailty of his own positive thinking?

1 comment:

Nyl said...

nice sharing about a man's ordinary life making it extraodinary! life is like that keith. sometimes things just came to happen and we realize that we actually begin from there towards greatness.

keep pursuing your goal my friend. we all can make a very good myth in our life for as long as we try.:)