who walks into a classroom late, solves the math problems on the

board thinking they are an assignment, and then finds out that the

lecture that day was on famous unsolved problems. This story has

become a staple of lectures on positive thinking, and inspired a

subplot in the movie Good Will Hunting. But the most surprising thing

about this urban legend is that it's based on a well-documented true

story.

The student involved was George Dantzig, a graduate student at

Berkeley in 1939. He arrived late to a statistics class, and saw

several problems already on the board. Assuming they were that week's

assignment, he copied them down. It took him longer than usual to

solve them, so a few days later he sheepishly approached the busy

professor, Jerzy Neyman, and asked if he could turn in his homework

late. The professor, not paying much attention, told him to leave the

homework on his desk. Then a few days later, Neyman appeared, banging

on Dantzig's front door. At that point he explained that the problems

had been famous unsolved problems in statistics, and he wanted to send

one of them out for publiction immediately! He later accepted these

same solutions, written up a little more formally, as Dantzig's

Ph.D. thesis.

The story passed from a curious anecdote into the realm of urban

legend after a chance encounter between Dantzig and evangelist Robert

Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles. Schuller liked the

story so much that, in addition to using it in motivational talks, he

published it in one of his books on the power of positive thinking.

The version in the books was badly distorted, moving Dantzig from a

grad student to an undergrad, and adding claims that Einstein had

attempted and failed to solve the same problems. The anecdote began

to pop up regularly in Christian sermons across middle America.

Dantzig quite went on to a very distinguished career, working at

the RAND corporation, Berekeley, and Stanford, and becoming known as

the father of Linear Programming. Linear Programming is a method of

solving problems where there is a linear equation in multiple

variables with many solutions, but the solutions are constrained by a

set of inequality relations, so you want to try to find an optimal

result under the constraints. A simple example might be in a factory

where you have constraints on the various amounts of resources that

can be used, a minimum required level of quality, and need to maximize

the number of units you produce. This field of study was considered

so important that the U.S. government initially kept it a secret, due

to its potential reduction of costs and casualties to the army. In

1975, Dantzig was awarded the National Medal of Science by

President Ford.

So, what lessons can we draw from this story? Well, Dantzig was

clearly a genius to start with, as his later career shows. But his

experience is still relevant to the rest of us. By approaching a

problem with the mindset that you should be able to solve it, rather

than starting out by thinking it's probably beyond your abilities, you

can significantly increase your odds of success. I should probably

end the podcast now, before I start to sound like Oprah.

And this has been your Math Mutation for today.

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