Today, a Nobel Prize lost. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
George B. Dantzig was born in 1914, named after
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. His Russian father, Tobias, briefly
studied with French mathematician Henri Poincaré before emigrating to the U.S.
When his son showed proclivity in geometry, Tobias fed the boy's interest
with geometry problems. Dantzig would later comment that "the mental exercise
required to solve them was the great gift from my father."
In 1939, Dantzig began his doctorate in statistics at Berkeley. But, with
WW-II underway, he soon put his studies on hold and went to work as Head of
the Combat Analysis Branch at the Air Force Headquarters for Statistical Control.
The armed forces had to get trucks, planes, people, food -- you name it -- into
the field. The detailed plans for doing so were called "programs." These programs
would serve as the foundation of Dantzig's legacy.
Just as there are many ways to get from New York to Los Angeles, there are many
programs that will solve a military planning problem. Some are better than others.
We need to know the possible solutions; then we need to know how to find the best
one. It isn't easy. There are usually more solutions than we could ever evaluate
one by one in the next billion years.
Dantzig quickly recognized that problems like of the kind the military faced could
be cast as problems in geometry. The possible solutions correspond to the points
inside a diamond-like shape. Finding the best solution is like finding a specific
corner on the diamond's surface. Dantzig came up with a computer algorithm for just
that. It doesn't check all corners. It keeps finding better ones until it reaches
the best. The process is remarkably fast, and can be used to solve previously
Dantzig's efforts gave birth to one of the most important mathematical tools ever
used for solving complex decision problems. That tool is linear programming.
The word "programming" does not refer to computer programs. It refers to those old
military problems. His algorithm is called the simplex method.
Dantzig is known throughout the world as the father of linear programming. He received
countless honors and awards in his life, including the National Medal of Science.
But he was passed over by the Nobel Prize committee, even though linear programming
was not. That decision shocked and dismayed many. Tjalling Koopmans was deeply
distressed. He shared the 1975 Nobel Prize with Leonid Kantorovich for their contributions
to linear programming. Koopmans even approached Kantorovich about refusing the prize.
Nothing came of it, but he did donate what would've been Dantzig's share of the prize
money to the institute where they'd once worked together.
We can only speculate about the decision of the prize committee, but there's an important
distinction between Dantzig's work and the work of Koopmans and Kantorovich. The two
prize winners emphasized economic theory. Dantzig emphasized the mathematical engineering
needed to solve linear programs. There's no Nobel Prize in engineering or mathematics.
Maybe there should be.
I'm Andy Boyd, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gass, S.I. The Life
and Times of the Father of Linear Programming. OR/MS Today, August 2005.
Retrieved January 31, 2008. Dantzig illustration above is courtesy of this site.
George Dantzig. Retrieved January 31, 2008.
Press release for the 1975 Nobel Prize in Economics. Retrieved January 31, 2008.
Simplex algorithm. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from Wikipedia.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.