USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘accidental’
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Student inadvertently solves never-before-solved math problems

My informant told me about a story she heard about a student waking up late and rushing to their final, then frantically trying to finish the three equations on the board. The first two weren’t so bad, but the third was difficult. He finally finished and turned it into the professor only to find out later the third was actually not part of the test. Instead, it was a problem that had as of yet been unsolved. He had figured it out, though. My informant likes it because she thinks it would be cool to accidentally become famous like that and because it relates to one of her favorite movies, Good Will Hunting, since the main character in it easily solves equations no else could.

I like how the story reflects how we believe what we hear; when we are told something is impossible, it will seem much harder in our mind. But when we think something is supposed to be solvable, it may be easier to figure out, even if it’s never been done before. Limitations we place on ourselves are often illusory.

I looked into the story and found that it is actually based in truth. In 1939, George Dantzig arrived late to his graduate statistics class and saw two problems on the board, not knowing they were examples of problems that had never been solved. He thought they were a homework assignment and was able to solve them. He found out the reality six weeks later when his teacher let him know and helped him publish a paper about one of the problems.

Annotation: Cottle, Richard, Ellis Johnson, and Roger Wets. “George B. Dantzig.” Notices of the AMS 54.3 (2007). Web. April 23 2012.

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