Dantzig and Isis: Real Urban Legends

Robert Schuller recently announced that his son will assume the ministerial duties at the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, which reminded me of a topic I am planning for IsisInBlog.  Schuller once sat on a plane next to the eminent mathematician George B. Dantzig, who told him a story about a graduate school experience. (1)

Dantzig had been late for class, arriving after everyone left.  He saw two problems on the blackboard and, assuming they were the next assignments, set to work.  After solving the problems, he handed them in late, apparently a habit with him.  Dantzig apologized to the instructor, explaining that these problems had been particularly difficult.  The assignments on the board were actually two unsolvable math problems.  Dantzig got two articles and a dissertation out of it and eventually fame beyond the world of math.  That’s where Schuller comes in.

Schuller’s ministry promotes positive thinking.  He recognized that Dantzig’s story supported his own theories, so he included it in one of his books.  According to Schuller, Dantzig solved the unsolvable problems because he assumed there was a solution.  He didn’t have the negative influence of “unsolvable” to hold him back.  The story was picked up by ministers for their own sermons and became a true urban legend.

What does this have to do with taxonomy?  It has quite a bit to do with the development of my own organizational skills.  I had a college experience similar to Dantzig’s when I discovered a puzzle in Nathanael West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust.  West must have been an organizer because he sure built an elaborate structure.

I want to explore West’s puzzle for a couple of reasons.  First, my experience enhances our understanding of structural thinking.  In addition, I owe it to West.  He worked hard on his puzzle and I am the only one who found it.  This may be partly because he died in a car crash on a road in Twenty-Nine Palms, CA shortly after publishing The Day of the Locust.  If he had lived, perhaps he would have made the next puzzle more obvious, giving scholars a few clues that one of our great American novels has an extra treat.

(1) Albers, D. J., Alexanderson, G. L., & Reid, C. (1990). George B. Dantzig. In More mathematical people: Contemporary conversations (pp. 67-68). Boston: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Originally published as “An Interview with George B. Dantzig:  The Father of Linear Programming” by Donald J. Albers and Constance Reid in College Mathematics Journal, 1986, 17:4, pp. 292-314.  This seems to be the primary resource for the retelling of Dantzig’s story, which can be traced by the misspelling of Schuller’s name as Schuler.  The book has photos of Dantzig, who looks like Nathanael West’s twin.  See also the Urban Legends Reference Pages, www.snopes.com/college/homework/unsolvable.asp

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Jan 2006

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