01-2014 The power of positive thinking

The power of positive thinking…

A real life story about George Dantzig (famous mathematician, and inventor of the simplex method of optimisation)

During my first year at Berkeley I arrived late one day to one of Neyman’s classes. On the blackboard were two problems which I assumed had been assigned for homework. I copied them down. A few days later I apologized to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework – the problems seemed to be a little harder to do than usual. I asked him if he still wanted the work. He told me to throw it on his desk. I did so reluctantly because his desk was covered with such a heap of papers that I feared my homework would be lost there forever.

About six weeks later, one Sunday morning about eight o’clock, Anne and I were awakened by someone banging on our front door. It was Neyman. He rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: “I’ve just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication.” For a minute I had no idea what he was talking about. To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard which I had solved thinking they were homework were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them.

In fact, the story goes that, Dantzig’s remarkable feat was the topic of the sermons delivered by the pastor in the local church, to prove the power of positive thinking. Dantzig did what he did, because he never doubted that the problems were of a kind which no one else had been able to solve before. He worked without any doubt about his being able to solve the problems.

Another aspect of Dantzig’s personality was his modesty which shows up when he says “The tremendous power of the simplex method is a constant surprise to me”.

(adapted from http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Dantzig_George.html )


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