Inside Story

In search of history

Peter Horner, editor

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had an affinity for history, which seems incongruous while working in a field like operations research that highly values forward-looking tools such as forecasting and statistical analysis software and predictive analytics. After all, no company or organization is interested in solving yesterday’s problems; they want to know what they should do today and in the future to optimize their operations and maximize their competitive advantage going forward.

Nevertheless, history plays a vital role in almost any organization or profession, and that’s especially true with an organization like INFORMS and a profession like operations research that are continually expanding and improving their products and services (in the case of INFORMS) and their knowledge, effectiveness and impact (in the case of the profession) by building on the work of their predecessors.

Fortunately, from my perspective, INFORMS’ revitalized History and Traditions Committee (HTC) has been quite active over the past few years in collecting, preserving and disseminating materials related to the history of the O.R. profession and INFORMS, as Arjang Assad and Mark Eisner pointed out in an article in OR/MS Today (April 2015). The HTC’s website has become a treasure chest of O.R. history, including many video interviews with and by prominent INFORMS members, several of which were recorded at the 2016 INFORMS Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tenn. Thanks to Arjang, Mark, Irv Lustig and all the other members of this hard-working committee for keeping O.R.’s remarkable history current and alive.

While updating an article marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Operations Research Society of America for this issue of OR/MS Today (“The evolution of INFORMS,” page 22), I was struck by the number of founding fathers (they were all men back in the day) and the second generation of O.R. and management science leaders who passed away since we published a similar article upon ORSA’s 50th anniversary in 2002. I had the honor of meeting and/or interviewing several of them, including George Dantzig, William C. Cooper, C. West Churchman, David Hertz, Andy Vazsonyi, Saul Gass and others who made OR/MS history and upon whose shoulders INFORMS and the profession stand today.

Of course, INFORMS and the profession marches on, as well it should. Along those lines, this issue includes an article by Doug Samuelson (“Search and search again,” page 18) that explores the topic of “Optimal Search for Moving Targets,” the title of a new book by Lawrence Stone, et al, that serves as the follow-up to Stone’s award-winning 1975 book, “Theory of Optimal Search.”

Stone’s career provides a nice history lesson in search theory over the past 50 years, including such news-making events as the discovery of the USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine that was mysteriously lost at sea in 1968, as well as the discovery of the SS Central America, a gold-laden sidewheel steamer that sank about 100 miles off the coast of the Carolinas in 1857. Stone was a finalist for the Edelman Award from INFORMS for his efforts in the latter search.

Finding stationary targets such as ships on the bottom of the ocean is one thing. Finding moving targets – especially targets that don’t want to be found – is a far more complicated endeavor as Samuelson reports.

This issue features yet another history lesson – the story of “poetical scientist” Ada Lovelace, the daughter of famed poet Lord Byron. Contributing author Aaron Lai considers Lovelace the “first female computer scientist.” Find out why on page 34.