Math homework

In 1939 a student at UC Berkeley copied down two homework problems from the class blackboard. He solved them in a few days… and then discovered that they were two of the thorniest unsolved theorems in statistics.

Chalkboard math lecture
Tungsten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whenever I hear an urban legend, my feelings are a blend of satisfaction and sadness. Satisfaction because a good urban legend carries with it a compelling story about how we want the world to work. Sadness because reality almost never fulfills that promise. Almost.

If you’ve seen the film Good Will Hunting, this story is familiar. A secret math genius working as a janitor solves an near-unsolvable math problem on a public blackboard:

Incidentally, if you want to know how to solve that particular problem, start here:

Or, if your sense of humour is similar to mine, consider Perry Bible Fellowship’s Lyle’s Constant. But the story is the important thing here: the experts are surprised by an outsider’s secret skills. It’s satisfying because many people secretly hope that they could one day surprise the experts… or perhaps they secretly hope that the experts could be humbled for once? Either way, this is a very satisfying urban legend. And, for once, it has its basis in an actual event.

UC Berkeley, 1939. A statistics student shows up late to class and sees two problems written up on the classroom’s blackboard. He assumes that they are homework assignments, copies them down, and spends the next few days solving them. The only problem: they aren’t homework, they are two unproved statistical theorems, and the student has just proved them both for the first time.

You can imagine his teacher’s surprise when the student handed in this “homework.” Both proofs were later published (I’ve linked to the first one below). The student in question – George Dantzig – was studying for his doctorate, and the next year had the following exchange with his supervisor:

A year later, when I began to worry about a thesis topic, Neyman just shrugged and told me to wrap the two problems in a binder and he would accept them as my thesis.

The Unsolvable Math Problem

Dantzig, by the way, went on to become a highly influential figure in mathematical decision-making. He invented the simplex algorithm, for example, which gives an extremely quick and efficient solution for questions of otherwise insurmountable complexity.

[Thanks to Gareth E.]

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