Monday, 25 January 2016

What Purpose Do the Great Mathematical Problems Serve?

In 1939, a mathematics student at the University of California, Berkeley (USA) arrived late for class. Before the end of the lesson, he wrote in his notebook the two problems that the professor had written on the blackboard, assuming that they were the assigned homework. The student took a few days to deliver the solutions, since the task was more difficult than usual. A few weeks later, on a Sunday at 8 am, the student and his wife were awakened by the sound of someone banging on the door of their house. It was the professor, in a state of great excitement; those mathematical formulations written on the blackboard were not exercises for the class, but rather two famous problems of statistics that nobody had been able to solve, until then.

The student was the mathematician George Dantzig, who died in 2005, considered as the father of linear programming and known for his contributions in statistics, computer science and economic analysis. Dantzig himself recounted the story in 1986 in an interview with the magazine College Mathematics Journal. The episode illustrates the aura of legend that surrounds the great mathematical problems and their protagonists; the story is true, although some versions have embellished it, placing Dantzig in a final exam that only he was able to finish.

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