Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2636
ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN AND MATHEMATICS

by Andrew Boyd

Today, leading the charge. 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.

What comes to mind when we think of military commanders? Fortitude. Loyalty. But what about … mathematical skills?

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently sat for an interview with representatives of INFORMS — the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. It’s a professional society for mathematically inclined problem solvers. In business these problem solvers go by many names. Quants. Numbers people. Rocket scientists. And Mullen is one of them.

Admiral Michael Mullen picture

As an undergraduate at the U. S. Naval Academy, Mullen found he liked math. So fifteen years after he graduated from Annapolis, he returned to get a masters degree in operations research at the Naval Postgraduate School. His assignment officer specifically advised him not to because it would end his career. A late return to graduate school wasn’t how officers advanced.

So why did Mullen find himself drawn to study a field of applied mathematics like operations research? Certainly, he enjoyed his studies. But Mullen also recognized the importance of tools like mathematical optimization, which could be used for tasks such as positioning troops or transporting supplies. Other tools, like simulation, could be used to study enemy engagement strategies. Understanding these tools would later prove useful when presenting recommendations to his boss — the President of the United States. In Mullen’s case, that would include both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

a linear program image

But Mullen appreciated far more than the mathematical machinery provided by his education. “One of the great things that the graduate education in [operations research] taught me,” said Mullen in his interview, “was how to think much more critically.”

Admiral Mullen is a leader who understands the changing role of the military. He recognizes that military involvement in humanitarian relief helps stabilize regions that might otherwise descend into chaos. He knows military effort to promote economic development in war torn areas is critical for regional stability. He’s constantly concerned about cyber-threats. To Mullen, winning a war isn’t an issue of simply crushing the enemy. It’s a systems engineering problem. And Mullen’s not alone in his perspective, since rising through the ranks required the recognition of his superiors.

relief effort

War has changed since men marched onto a battlefield and the side with the most survivors declared itself winner. Admiral Mullen is first and foremost a respected military leader. But in our ever-changing world, it’s reassuring to know there’s just a hint of mathematician mixed in.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Notes and references:

J. Chu. “How America's Top Military Officer Uses Business to Boost National Security.” Fast Company. May 1, 2010. See also http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/145/joint-venture.html?page=0%2C0. Accessed July 29, 2010.

P. Horner. Meet the (O.R.) Press: Interview with Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From the INFORMS Web site: http://www.informs.org/About-INFORMS/News-Room/INFORMS-Blog/Meet-the-O.R.-Press-Interview-with-Adm.-Mike-Mullen-Chairman-of-the-Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff. Accessed July 29, 2010. See also the interview at http://www.scienceofbetter.org/podcast.

All pictures are from Web sites of the U. S. government.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.