Every math teacher should be familiar with this famous story concerning George B. Dantzig (1914-2005). Dantzig is universally hailed as the Father of Linear Programming for his development of the simplex method, which was named one of the top 10 algorithms of the 20th century. The following story happened while he was a graduate student at the University of California.
If you search the Web for “urban legend George Dantzig” you will probably find the first hit to be “Snopes.com, The Unsolvable Math Problem.” That site recounts the story of how George, coming in late for class, mistakenly thought two problems written on the board by Neyman were homework problems. After a few days of struggling, George turned his answers in. About six weeks later, at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, he and Anne were awakened by someone banging on their front door. It was Neyman who said, “I have just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication.”
George’s answers to the homework problems were proofs of then two unproven theorems in statistics. The Web site gives all the details about how George’s experiences ended up as a sermon for a Lutheran minister and the basis for the film, “Good Will Hunting.” The solution to the second homework problem became part of a joint paper with Abraham Wald who proved it in 1950, unaware that George had solved it until it was called to his attention by a journal referee. Neyman had George submit his answers to the “homework” problems as his doctoral dissertation.
True story: my own paths actually overlapped with Dantzig’s once. When I was a sophomore in college and he was a professor emeritus, we both attended the same seminar, and he was stick as sharp as a tack. However, I couldn’t build up enough courage to introduce myself to the great man.