Optimal Efficiency

By Michael Pousner
D George L. Nemhauser r. George L. Nemhauser, a casually dressed slender man in aviator glasses, has interests beyond his speciality in combinational optimization. He dedicated his book, Integer Programming, to the New York Knicks basketball team. And the dust-cover photo shows him shooting baskets. Like Tech's head basketball coach Bobby Cremins, Nemhauser is a native of New York City's Bronx.

Nemhauser's odyssey from the streets of the Bronx to the corridors of Georgia Tech has been an adventuresome one. He received his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from City College in New York, and earned master's and PhD degrees at Northwestern University. Professor Jack Mitten, his mentor at Northwestern, convinced him to drop his idea of getting his doctorate in chemical engineering and, instead, to study operations research.

Nemhauser spent four years in Belgium, where he was research director for the Center of Operations Research and Econometrics at the University of Louvain, because he felt the experience would further his knowledge of the world.

Among the people he most admires is Dr. Jacques Dreze, a Belgian economist who greatly influenced him. Dreze, who retired from academia recently, then sailed around the world with his wife and one of his sons in a small boat. "He had a vision I like," Nemhauser says. "He's a lively guy and a risk taker."

Nemhauser is also lively. Highly animated and quick to smile, he talks of his life's work with great pleasure. "My basic research over my career has been in developing methodology for doing optimization problems and looking at real-world applications," he says, noting with satisfaction that in the process, his field grew from dull time-and-motion studies into a sophisticated discipline all its own. It led to the creation of the Center for Computational Optimization on the fourth floor of the Groseclose Building and, eventually, to his selection as an Institute professor--one of many honors Nemhauser has received, but one of which he is particularly proud.

What that means, he hopes, is that he and other Georgia Tech professors who have been meeting for dinner every so often will eventually teach a freshman course "that will make Georgia Tech a more interesting place for its youngest and most impressionable members. I think this little group of professors can get together and think about some things at Tech as a whole, rather than just their individual research centers or departments. There's potential here to do something different."

O ne of his disappointments, Nemhauser says, is that his research and his work with PhD students prevent him from spending more time in the classroom. "I've always retained a love for teaching," he says. "I want to get back to freshman students."

Although Nemhauser had no trouble at the famed Bronx High School of Science or CCNY, he says he wasn't at the time "a great student or a serious student. I had a high I.Q., but beyond that I had never worked really hard. Then I met Professor Mitten my first year at Northwestern, and he got me really intrigued by some interesting mathematical problems that seemed to have exciting applications. I was never a pure mathematician nor a scientist--I didn't like physics--but under Dr. Mitten I learned about applying math to the real world, the world of business, the world of economics. That really turned me on."

After receiving his PhD, Nemhauser went to Johns Hopkins as an assistant professor, and from there he went to Cornell University. This was an exciting time for his field, as studies of math and science were exploding in the aftermath of the Soviet launch of the first satellite--Sputnik--into orbit. In addition to working in Belgium, Nemhauser worked in England for a year. In 1977, he became director of the School of Operations Research and Industrial Engineering at Cornell. Dr. Michael E. Thomas, executive vice president at Georgia Tech, persuaded Nemhauser in the fall of 1985 to take the A. Russell Chandler III Chair in Industrial and Systems Engineering as a visiting professor.

"By January my wife, Ellen, and I decided it was the right time to move," Nemhauser said. "One child had just finished college and one had just finished high school, and my wife and I had fallen in love with Atlanta and Tech."

The Nemhausers have become bona fide civic and culturally minded Atlantans. They partake of as much local theater as possible (that, folk art, hiking and tennis are among Nemhauser's great nonacademic passions), and Ellen is active in the Druid Hills Civic Association. Indeed, Nemhauser speaks of defeating a developer who wanted to build high-density apartments in that neighborhood with the relish he devotes to his research and another great passion: Georgia Tech basketball. A poster of a recent Yellow Jacket basketball team has a prominent place in his office.

Nemhauser applies operations research to business. He is working on a problem now for Delta Air Lines involving "optimization of aircraft utilization." When he and his graduate and post- doctoral students work it all out, Delta may save some $3 million a month.

Looking back on his academic career, Nemhauser is proud of his specialty, even if its name confuses people. "I work in a field that you might not even want to call a discipline," he says. "Operations Research cuts across problem areas. I like to think of it as reaching a level of maturity now. It's a field that I love."

The Nemhauser File