Math Whiz Transformed Resource Management

September/October 2005

Reading time min

Math Whiz Transformed Resource Management

Courtesy Paul Dantzig

In his first year as a UC-Berkeley doctoral student, George Bernard Dantzig arrived late to his class with famed statistician Jerzy Neyman. Dantzig scribbled down two problems written on the blackboard that he assumed to be assignments. “A few days later, I apologized to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework—the problems seemed a little harder to do than usual,” Dantzig recalled years later. The apology was unnecessary—Dantzig had solved two famous unsolved problems in statistics. (The story, soon legendary in the math world, inspired a similar scene in the film Good Will Hunting.)

In a mathematics career that spanned seven decades, Dantzig created the field of linear programming from his “simplex method,” an algorithm for solving complex problems that revolutionized scientific computation. Professor emeritus of operations research and of computer science, Dantzig died May 13 of complications from diabetes and cardiovascular disease at his Stanford home. He was 90.

Combined with the calculating power of today’s computers, Dantzig’s algorithm is a tool that allows businesses and governments to identify optimal solutions to problems involving many variables. Linear programming applies to thousands of diverse applications—from pricing products, scheduling shipments and workers, and managing supply chains to evaluating policy alternatives, assigning personnel, rotating crops and targeting weapons. Professor of management science and engineering Arthur F. Veinott Jr. calls Dantzig’s simplex method “the single most widely used algorithm originated in the last six decades.”

Dantzig was born in Portland, Ore., to Tobias Dantzig, a Russian mathematician, and Anja Ourisson, a linguist. When George was in high school, Tobias challenged his son’s analytic ability with thousands of complex geometry problems.

In 1936, George Dantzig married Anne Shmuner and earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Maryland. He received his master’s in mathematics from the University of Michigan. An analyst for the Army Air Forces during World War II, Dantzig earned his doctorate in 1946 and discovered the simplex method in 1947. He was a researcher for the Rand Corporation from 1952 to 1960, then chair and professor at Berkeley’s Operations Research Center until he joined Stanford’s faculty in 1966.

Dantzig’s 1963 book, Linear Programming and Extensions, explains his methods. He also co-wrote Compact City: A Plan for a Livable Urban Environment and, after retiring in 1997, completed two volumes on linear programming and wrote a science fiction novel. In 1975, President Gerald Ford awarded him the National Medal of Science.

He enjoyed painting, woodworking and movies. Professor emeritus of management science and engineering Richard Cottle says Dantzig was “a great colleague” who was “always providing opportunities for people.”

Dantzig is survived by his wife of 68 years, Anne; sons David, MS ’72, and Paul, ’75, MS ’75; daughter Jessica Klass; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.