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Balas Honorary Doctorate

My colleague Egon Balas just received an honorary doctorate from the University of Liege. Yves Crama, Director General of the School of Management, introduced Egon with a wonderful and heartfelt introduction. Some excerpts:

For more than 40 years, Egon Balas has been one of the pioneers of all major theoretical developments and of the most innovative algorithmic approaches in optimization. His name is linked to numerous approaches with esoteric names – disjunctive programming, polyhedral methods, « lift-and-project », « shifting bottleneck heuristic », … I omit many of them, since his research has been the topic of over 200 scientific publications.

Beyond his theoretical and methodological contributions of highest importance, Egon Balas has broadly contributed to demonstrating the usefulness of mathematical models in the practice of management, by carrying out numerous studies relating to the optimization of production in the steel industry, in transportation, in telecommunications, in the oil industry or in finance. The algorithmic developments that he has initiated, or with which he was closely associated, are nowadays integrated in many corporate software packages which enable managers to optimize the efficiency of their production processes, most frequently without a full understanding of the complex algorithms upon which they rely.

Before starting this brilliant academic career, however, Egon Balas had already spent, and turned the page of several fascinating lives. He wrote about them in a captivating autobiography entitled: “Will to Freedom: A Perilous Journey Through Fascism and Communism”. I strongly recommend reading this book.

Born in Romania from a Hungarian family, Egon Balas has joined the ranks of the Hungarian communist party and of the anti-nazi resistance during World War II. His autobiography retraces his arrest by the nazis, his imprisonment, the sessions of torture he went through, and his escape shortly before the arrival of the Russian troops.

After the War, Egon Balas rapidly ascended through the ranks of the Romanian ministeries, and held a diplomatic position in London before being arrested once again, this time by the Romanian communist authorities inspired by the bad example of the Stalinist purges in USSR. Two years of solitary confinement and of barbaric treatments were not able to break down this personality made of hard steel, who stubbornly refused to cooperate in the staging of a fake trial. Freed after the death of Stalin, but disenchanted by the excesses of the communist regime, Egon Balas started his new life as an economist and self-made mathematician in Bucharest.

This reminds me of my favorite Egon story. He was called to jury duty here in Pittsburgh and was asked, during routine questioning, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” “Yes”, he replied. “And what crime was that?” “Treason!”. He got out of jury duty.

Europeans do a nice job of honorary doctorates. Here in the US, honorary doctorates tend to go to executives who give $100 million to a university. In Europe, they go to people truly admired by the university. I mentioned this to Egon, who replied “Yes, but then again, no one gives $100 million to European universities!” I rarely best Egon in conversation.

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  1. […] things given to people much older than myself.  For instance, my colleague Egon Balas received an honorary doctorate from the University of Liege.   But Egon is a bit older than me (though I suspect he will be working long after I have shuffled […]

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