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4 Year Old Calls 911 For Math Homework Snopes

CLAIM

A student mistook examples of unsolved statistics problems for a homework assignment and solved them.

True

RATING

True

ORIGIN

A legend about the “unsolvable math problem” combines one of the ultimate academic wish-fulfillment student not only proves himself the smartest one in his class, but also bests his professor and every other scholar in his field of study — with a “positive thinking” motif which turns up in other urban legends: when people are free to pursue goals unfettered by presumed limitations on what they can accomplish, they just may manage some extraordinary feats through the combined application of native talent and hard work:

A young college student was working hard in an upper-level math course, for fear that he would be unable to pass. On the night before the final, he studied so long that he overslept the morning of the test.

When he ran into the classroom several minutes late, he found three equations written on the blackboard. The first two went rather easily, but the third one seemed impossible. He worked frantically on it until — just ten minutes short of the deadline — he found a method that worked, and he finished the problems just as time was called.

The student turned in his test paper and left. That evening he received a phone call from his professor. “Do you realize what you did on the test today?” he shouted at the student.

“Oh, no,” thought the student. I must not have gotten the problems right after all.

“You were only supposed to do the first two problems,” the professor explained. “That last one was an example of an equation that mathematicians since Einstein have been trying to solve without success. I discussed it with the class before starting the test. And you just solved it!”

And this particular version is all the more interesting for being based on a real-life incident!

One day In 1939, Dantzig, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, arrived late for a graduate-level statistics class and found two problems written on the board. Not knowing they were examples of “unsolved” statistics problems, he mistook them for part of a homework assignment, jotted them down, and solved them. (The equations Dantzig tackled are more accurately described not as unsolvable problems, but rather as unproven statistical theorems for which he worked out proofs.)

Six weeks later, Dantzig’s statistic professor notified him that he had prepared one of his two “homework” proofs for publication, and Dantzig was given credit on another paper several years later when another mathematician independently worked out the same solution to the second problem.

George Dantzig recounted his feat in a 1986 interview for the College Mathematics Journal:

It happened because during my first year at Berkeley I arrived late one day at one of [Jerzy] Neyman’s classes. On the blackboard there were two problems that I assumed had been assigned for homework. I copied them down. A few days later I apologized to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework — the problems seemed to be a little harder than usual. I asked him if he still wanted it. He told me to throw it on his desk. I did so reluctantly because his desk was covered with such a heap of papers that I feared my homework would be lost there forever. About six weeks later, one Sunday morning about eight o’clock, [my wife] Anne and I were awakened by someone banging on our front door. It was Neyman. He rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: “I’ve just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication.” For a minute I had no idea what he was talking about. To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard that I had solved thinking they were homework were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them.

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 second of the two problems, however, was not published until after World It happened this way. Around 1950 I received a letter from Abraham Wald enclosing the final galley proofs of a paper of his about to go to press in the Annals of Mathematical Statistics. Someone had just pointed out to him that the main result in his paper was the same as the second “homework” problem solved in my thesis. I wrote back suggesting we publish jointly. He simply inserted my name as coauthor into the galley proof.

Dr. Dantzig also explained how his story passed into the realm of urban legendry:

The other day, as I was taking an early morning walk, I was hailed by Don Knuth as he rode by on his bicycle. He is a colleague at Stanford. He stopped and said, “Hey, was visiting in Indiana recently and heard a sermon about you in church. Do you know that you are an influence on Christians of middle America?” I looked at him, amazed. “After the sermon,” he went on, “the minister came over and asked me if I knew a George Dantzig at Stanford, because that was the name of the person his sermon was about.”

The origin of that minister’s sermon can be traced to another Lutheran minister, the Reverend Schuler [sic] of the Crystal Cathedral in He told me his ideas about thinking positively, and I told him my story about the homework problems and my thesis. A few months later I received a letter from him asking permission to include my story in a book he was writing on the power of positive thinking. Schuler’s published version was a bit garbled and exaggerated but essentially correct. The moral of his sermon was this: If I had known that the problem were not homework but were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics, I probably would not have thought positively, would have become discouraged, and would never have solved them.

The version of Dantzig’s story published by Christian televangelist Robert Schuller contained a good deal of embellishment and misinformation which has since been propagated in urban legend-like forms of the tale such as the one quoted at the head of this page: Schuller converted the mistaken homework assignment into a “final exam” with ten problems (eight of which were real and two of which were “unsolvable”), claimed that “even Einstein was unable to unlock the secrets” of the two extra problems, and erroneously stated that Dantzig’s professor was so impressed that he “gave Dantzig a job as his assistant, and Dantzig has been at Stanford ever since.”

George Dantzig (himself the son of a mathematician) received a Bachelor’s degree from University of Maryland in 1936 and a Master’s from the University of Michigan in 1937 before completing his Doctorate (interrupted by World ) at UC Berkeley in 1946. He later worked for the Air Force, took a position with the RAND Corporation as a research mathematician in 1952, became professor of operations research at Berkeley in 1960, and joined the faculty of Stanford University in 1966, where he taught and published as a professor of operations research until the 1990s. In 1975, was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford.

George Dantzig passed away at his Stanford home at age 90 on 2005.

  This legend is used as the setup of the plot in the 1997 movie . As well, one of the early scenes in the 1999 film Rushmore shows the main character daydreaming about solving the impossible question and winning approbation from all.

FeedbackSources

Fact Checker:David Mikkelson

Published:4 December 1996

Updated:20 August 2017

Sources:

Albers, Donald J. and Constance Reid.   “An Interview of George B. Dantzig: The Father of Linear Programming.”
    College Mathematics Journal.   Volume 17, Number 4; 1986   (pp. 293-314).

Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 278-283).

Dantzig, George B.     “On the Non-Existence of Tests of ‘Student’s’ Hypothesis Having Power Functions Independent of Sigma.”
    Annals of Mathematical Statistics.   No. 11; 1940   (pp. 186-192).

Dantzig, George B. and Abraham Wald.   “On the Fundamental Lemma of Neyman and Pearson.”
    Annals of Mathematical Statistics.   No. 22; 1951   (pp. 87-93).

Pearce, Jeremy.   “George B. Dantzig Dies at 90.”
    The New York Times.   23 May 2005.

  Woman calls police because a fast food outlet won’t make a cheeseburger the way she wants it.


NOTE: The following is a transcript of an audio file. Click here to listen to the original recording.

Dispatcher: Sheriff’s department, how can I help you?

Woman: Yeah, I’m over here . . . I’m over here at Burger King right here in *

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: Um, no, not San Clemente; I’m sorry, I live in I’m in Laguna Niguel, I
think, that’s where I’m at.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I’m at a drive-through right now.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I went . . . I ordered my food three times. They’re mopping the floor inside, and I understand they’re they’re not even busy, okay, I’ve been the only car here. I asked them four different times to make me a Western Barbeque Burger. Okay, they keep giving me a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, onions, and I said, “I’m not

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I want a Western Burger because I just got my kids from Tae Kwon Do, they’re hungry, I’m on my way home, and I live in San Clemente.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: Okay . . . she said, she gave me another hamburger; it’s wrong. I said four times, I said, “I want it to go. Can you go out and park in front?” I said, “No, I want my hamburger right.” So then the lady came to the manager. well whoever she is, she came up and she said, um, she said, um, “Do you want your money back?” And I said, “No, I want my hamburger. My kids are hungry and I have to jump on that toll freeway.” I said, “I am not leaving this spot,” and I said, “I will call the police,” because I want my Western Burger done right! Now is that so hard?

Dispatcher: Okay, what exactly is it you want us to do for you?

Woman: I . . . send an officer down here. I want them to make

Dispatcher: Ma’am, we’re not gonna go down there and enforce your Western Bacon Cheeseburger.

Woman: What am I supposed to do?

Dispatcher: This this is between you and the manager. We’re not gonna go and enforce how to make a hamburger; that’s not a criminal issue. There’s . . . there’s nothing criminal there.

Woman: So I just stand so I just sit here and [block]?

Dispatcher: you need to calmly and rationally speak to the manager and figure out what to do between you.

Woman: She did come up, and I said, “Can I please have my Western Burger?” she said, “I’m not dealing with it,” and she walked away. Because they’re mopping the floor, and it’s also the fact that they don’t want they don’t want to go through

Dispatcher: Ma’am, then I suggest you get your money back and go somewhere else. This this is not a criminal issue. We can’t go out there and make them make you a cheeseburger the way you want it.

Woman: Well . . . that is . . . that . . . you’re supposed to be here to protect me.

Dispatcher: Well, what are we protecting you from, a wrong cheeseburger?

Woman: No . . .

Dispatcher: Is this like . . . is this a harmful cheeseburger or something? I don’t understand what you want us to do.

Woman: Just come down here. I’m not . . . I’m not leaving.

Dispatcher: No ma’am, I’m not sending the deputies down there over a cheeseburger. You need to go in there and act like an adult and either get your money back or go home.

Woman: She is not acting like an adult herself! I’m sitting here in my car; I just want them to make my kids a Western Burger.

Dispatcher: Ma’am, this is what I suggest: I suggest you get your money back from the manager and you go on your way home.

Woman: Okay.

Dispatcher: Okay? Bye-bye.
 


(*We’re aware that the Western Bacon Cheeseburger is a menu item offered by not Burger King. The caller either misidentified the type of burger she was trying to order or misstated the name of the restaurant. Both chains have outlets in Laguna Niguel, and Burger King has periodically promoted a Western Whopper burger.)

  Anyone who has worked a police or emergency services dispatch line can attest that some callers just don’t seem to have a very good grasp of what kinds of situations constitute valid emergencies, or even what sort of problems fall within the purview of law enforcement or emergency rescue services. People call 911 for assistance in such matters as needing help with

homework, clogged toilets, and non-functioning smoke detectors, to try to find out the latest sports scores and lottery results, to report broken televisions and cable outages, to seek assistance in locating lost pets, and to report all sorts of minor medical ailments.

The call transcribed above is one such example: a woman phones the Orange County Sheriff’s Department from the drive-through window of a fast food restaurant because she just can’t get the uncooperative employees there to make the kind of hamburger she wants. The results are all the more amusing in this case because even though dispatchers generally dispose of non-emergency and misdirected calls as quickly as feasible in order to keep the phone lines clear for legitimate calls, this one stays on the phone with the irate woman for two and a half minutes — during which period the caller fulfills all the stereotypes of the narcissistic, pompous, self-absorbed Orange County soccer mom as she berates the restaurant employees for screwing up her kids’ order and ignoring her, and the dispatcher for refusing to send an officer out to deal with the situation (a reasonable expectation, she maintains, because the police are “supposed to be here to protect me”).

The bemused dispatcher handles the call with aplomb (and a touch of sarcasm), repeatedly informing the exasperated woman that a dispute over the proper preparation of a hamburger is not a criminal issue and therefore not an appropriate matter in which to involve the sheriff’s department:

Woman: Well . . . that is . . . that . . . you’re supposed to be here to protect me.

Woman: No . . .

Dispatcher: Is this like . . . is this a harmful cheeseburger or something? I don’t understand what you want us to do.

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