Death of Benoit Mandelbrot

The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has passed away at the age of 85. Mandelbrot made a career in defining and studying fractals, geometric shapes that do not lose complexity as you zoom in on them. Things like coastlines are fractals: as you zoom in on a coastline, smaller and smaller inlets and other curves appear.

For me, my introduction to this area was by my advisor John Bartholidi who used space filling curves, a type of fractal, to schedule Atlanta’s Meals on Wheels (free lunches for the elderly), of all things. At that time, I bulled my way through the fractal literature, always hoping to find some more examples of how fractals could be used in operations research. Unfortunately, I don’t know of other good examples of fractals in operations research. But I have found knowing about fractals to be helpful in my everyday life. Once you start looking for fractals and self-similar objects, they are all around and seeing them makes experiences richer.

Anyone know other examples of how fractals have been used in operations research?

Martin Gardner has Passed Away

Martin Gardner has passed away.  I know I am not the only person in operations research who was inspired by Gardner’s Mathematical Games columns in Scientific American.  I have a strong memory of whiling away long high school physics classes reading Gardner’s columns (and thankful that patient and insightful physics teacher had a stack of Scientific Americans and did not mind my lack of attention to his teaching).  A large number of the columns were really about operations research problems:  “What is the best way to do this?”  “How few moves are needed to accomplish that?”  It is through his columns that I understood the breadth and beauty of mathematics, and how that world was accessible even to a high school student.  And that high school students and professional mathematicians could work on the same problem and each have something to contribute.

When I went to university, it took me some time to find the type of mathematics that inspired what Gardner inspired.  I found it in operations research, and I am thankful for Martin Gardner for showing me what to look for.

Gerry Thompson has Passed Away

Gerry Thompson, a colleague of mine at the Tepper School, has passed away.  Gerry was one of the founders of operations research, having done significant work dating back to the 1950s.  Much of Gerry’s early work was in game theory (particularly work with Kemeny).  Over time, Gerry moved into pure operations research and did a lot of the early work in scheduling and project planning.  I just reread his 1960 paper on production-scheduling problems, and it is full of fascinating results that I would have just put down as folklore.  I particularly liked the computational results section of this paper, where computers were used long before they could do very much.  So Gerry and his coauthor simply generated 200 random schedules for a problem, used their results to convert the schedules into “active” schedules (no left-shifting of jobs) and proposed using the best of those 200.  This is a very good idea that presages many current algorithms based on multiple restarts of metaheuristic approaches.

Gerry was a wonderful colleague to have.  He was quiet and thoughtful but he brought a host of experience to the issues we faced here.  For many years, our MSIA (Masters of Science in Industrial Administration, now called MBA) students learned linear programming on their own with a computer-aided system that Gerry developed.  Gerry received an award for this in 1976:  I think some readers might be surprised that computers were widespread enough at the time to allow for such innovation!

A few years ago, Gerry’s former doctoral students put on a conference for him for his 70th birthday.  There is a volume that came out of that which includes a tremendous appreciation by Bill Cooper.  There are a number of wonderful stories about Gerry.  Let me recount one about Fred Glover (now rightfully one of the most distinguished and honored researchers in operations research):

Only one example is the case of Fred Glover, who is now regarded as an outstanding contributor to areas such as integer programming and combinatorial optimization.  Less well known is that Fred was assigned to me [Cooper] as a research assistant, partly because it was hoped that I could do something for this somewhat lackluster student when he was a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA).  I could therefore witness “up close” the transformation that occurred as Fred “came alive” not because of me but because of the course he took from Gerry  in the then new area of integer programming.  It was almost as though a different person emerged under the same name, as Fred excitedly began to work in integer programming and went o to make numerous contributions in his own right, and then continued to affect otheers as both a teacher and a researcher.  Among those who were thus affected by this transformation I can include myself, as I began to realize how much a teacher could (and should) accomplish with the right “alchemy on any student”.

Gerry had a tremendous career with 13 books and well over 160 articles, along with an extremely impressive set of graduate students he affected.  Without Gerry, it is likely that operations research would not have been embedded in GSIA (now the Tepper School of Business), so my own path would have been quite different.

Gerry kinda-retired a few years ago, but I would still see him in the building once in a while.  While age had slowed him, he still had the grace and kindness that I saw twenty years ago when I was an over-active interviewee for a faculty position here.

I will miss Gerry, and my heart goes out to his wife Dorothea and the rest of his family.

Added November 21

A memorial service for Gerald L. Thompson will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 5, 2009, at the First Unitarian Church, corner of Morewood and Ellsworth Avenues in Shadyside, Pittsburgh.

Gerry is survived by his wife Dorothea M. Thompson; his sisters Margery Nagorny and Janet Lundmark; his daughters, Allison, Emily, and Abigail, and seven grandchildren.

Russell Ackoff passed away

ackoff1Russell Lincoln Ackoff passed away October 29, 2009.  Ackoff was one of the most controversial researchers in operations research.  A prolific writer, his early work was pure operations research, as it was understood in the early 1960s.  Ackoff was an early (1956-57) president of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA, a forerunner of INFORMS) and co-wrote an influential textbook on operations research with Churchman and Arnoff in 1962.

By the late 1970s, Ackoff was disillusioned with operations research, penning articles with titles such as “The Future of Operational Research is Past”.  Kirby has a nice article outlining his changing views.

I have a number of Ackoff’s books and enjoy his writing very much.  I particularly enjoy “The art of problem solving (accompanied by Ackoff’s Fabes)“, which contains a number of stories that I use in my classes.

I was a teenager when Ackoff split from operations research, and the issues Ackoff brings up do not resonate with me.  There are lots of ways to solve problems.  Not every business problem is a linear program.  But not every business problem can be solved by bringing together a dozen people to draw circles and arrows.  Operations Research has its place, as does the direction Ackoff went in.

Criticism from a source as well respected as Ackoff has been salutary for the field, I believe.  Understanding the limits of what we do is as important as understanding our successes.  While perhaps Ackoff could have headed off in new directions with a little less rancor, our field is richer for having had him both within it, and outside of it.

But I think the best of operations research is still to come.

Kurt Spielberg Passing

There is news from Monique Guignard, via a complicated path, that Kurt Spielberg has passed away, struck by a passing car outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Kurt did a lot of work on how to make integer programming and relaxation methods really work in practice.   This work started in the 60s and continued right to the present. I did not know Kurt, but I continually came across his work whenever I thought I had a good idea (particularly when I was working on lagrangian relaxations):  typically Kurt got there decades before I did.

Annals of Operations Research has recently published an article by Kurt on his 40+ years at IBM (my university subscribes, of course, but I did find a copy on the web).  It is a fascinating story!  Kurt was one (the last?) of the “old style” people in operations research who began in physics and simply started solving operations research problems.  What a career Kurt had! He retired from IBM in 1990, but continued to be active in consulting, contract work, and grant support for his remaining years The paper shows his enthusiasm for optimization remained clear to the end.

Viewing Wednesday evening 7 to 9pm and Thursday morning 9 to 10am in the Schetter Funeral Home 304 W. Rt. 70, Cherry Hill, NJ. Mass of Christian Burial Thursday 11am in St. Peter Celestine RC Church, Cherry Hill, NJ. Interment Colestown Cemetery Cherry Hill, NJ.

Passing of Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor whose “Last Lecture” led to a book and world-wide attention, passed away today from pancreatic cancer. From a message from Jared Cohon, President of CMU:

Randy captured the minds and hearts of millions worldwide with his Carnegie Mellon lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” and his book, “The Last Lecture.”

Randy, who earned his doctorate from Carnegie Mellon in 1988, returned to the university in 1997 as an associate professor of human-computer interaction and computer science. Along with Carnegie Mellon Professor Don Marinelli, Randy was the co-founder of the Entertainment Technology Center, a leading interactive multimedia education and entertainment center.

At Carnegie Mellon, Randy was also the director of the Alice software project, a revolutionary way to teach computer programming. The interactive Alice program teaches computer programming by having kids make animated movies and games. A fitting legacy to Randy’s life and work, Alice may in the future help to reverse the dramatic drop in the number of students majoring in computer science at colleges and universities. Randy was also known as a pioneer in the development of virtual reality, and he created the popular Building Virtual Worlds class.

An award-winning teacher and researcher, Randy was also a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator and a Lilly Foundation Teaching Fellow. He used sabbatical leaves to work at Walt Disney Imagineering and Electronic Arts (EA), and he consulted with Google Inc. on user interface design. He is the author or co-author of five books and more than 70 articles.

Perhaps the greatest lesson, however, Randy taught us all was how to live, even in the face of great challenges, and how to follow our passion. While Randy’s greatest passion was clearly his family, he did not shy from sharing his passion for his work as a professor, for his students, and for Carnegie Mellon. We will miss Randy, but we will carry the memory of him and all that he did to make Carnegie Mellon a better university and each of us who knew him a better person.

I didn’t see Randy’s original talk, though I have seen videos of it. I don’t know how he had the strength to make a talk like that. If I had brought my wife and son out on the stage knowing I would not see him grow up, I would be a weepy mess. I am sorry to see his passing, but I think a lot of kids got extra hugs, and perhaps people better balanced their lives (and lived out their childhood dreams), because of him.

Passing of Rick Rosenthal

Update Jan 10. A webcast celebrating Rick’s life will be available live starting at 1:30PM PT on January 10.

This is a post I had hoped to not make. Rick Rosenthal of the Naval Postgraduate School has passed away following a long, courageous, and inspiring fight with cancer. In my list of those I admire and hope to emulate in this field, Rick was right at the top. As a researcher, he represented everything I admire: insight, brilliance, and real wish to affect practice. As a person, he was honorable, thoughtful, funny, and inspiring. The field of OR is lessened by his passing. I consider my life to have been greatly enrichened by knowing him and I am thankful I knew him well enough to consider him a friend. My thoughts are with Pascale and the rest of Rick’s family.

Here is the message from the head of OR, James Eagle, at the Naval Postgraduate School (thanks to Jerry Brown for sending it on to me):

Distinguished Professor Richard E. Rosenthal died at approximately 1 pm, Thursday, 3 January 2008 at the Hospice of the Central Coast, Monterey, CA, after a courageous bout with cancer. He was with family and friends at the end. A private memorial service is planned for Sunday, 6 January. Prof. Rosenthal was born in 1950 in Nassau County, NY. He graduated from John Hopkins University in Mathematics in 1972 and from Georgia Institute of Technology in Operations Research (OR) in 1975. From 1975 to 1983 he was an assistant and associate professor of Management Science at the University of Tennessee. In 1984 he came the OR Department at NPS as a National Academy of Sciences Senior Research Fellow. He stayed at NPS as an associate, full, and distinguished professor. He was Operations Research department chairman during 1997-2000. He has authored or co-authored over 20 professional papers in the OR literature. His numerous awards include the International Federation of Operations Research Societies Distinguished Lectureship, the Department of the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award, and the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences Prize for Teaching OR/MS Practice. The Military Operations Research Society has recently established the Rosenthal Student Military Modeling Award to recognize outstanding student military operations research. A public memorial service will be scheduled at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Rick has requested the following:

In lieu of flowers, please:

1- Take time off from your responsibilities to enjoy a great meal with good friends and family who you do not see often enough,

2- Give some time or money to a charity that brings some joy to those who need it or contributes to advances in education, science, the arts or the environment.”

The Rosenthal mailing address is 11 Encina Avenue, Monterey, CA 93940.

January 5 update. As news of Rick’s passing spreads, there will be more posts from all those he touched. A Naval officer and student of Rick’s has posted here. He points to Rick’s blog on his fight, a blog I followed but am now finding too hard to read.

Passing of Joan Wingo

The field of operations research is full of unsung heros: people who make the field better by doing their jobs with enthusiasm, creativity, and skill. If you have published in Operations Research over the last six years, or if you have read and admired papers in that journal, you will have seen the work of Joan Wingo, Managing Editor of Operations Research. Joan worked with Editor-in-Chief Larry Wein to make Operations Research run, and run well. I worked with Joan over the last few months on transition issues with the new editorial board.

Joan, sadly and untimely, passed away February 13. Her obituary notice contains some thoughts of her friends, coworkers and loved ones. We, as a field, owe her a great deal.

John Muth

John Muth passed away in October. He was an early faculty member at the school I am at (the Tepper School at Carnegie Mellon) and a key researcher in the economic area of rational expections. What is the OR content? Check out his obituary and note the work in operations management and forecasting along with his work in economics and finance. Not many people about these days that would try to span those areas!