You can’t go wrong with ‘dynamic’

[HT: Scott Stern] Richard Bellman — of the famous Bellman equation — recounts how he came up with the name ‘dynamic programming’

An interesting question is, ‘Where did the name, dynamic programming, come from?’ The 1950s were not good years for mathematical research. We had a very interesting gentleman in Washington named Wilson. He was Secretary of Defense, and he actually had a pathological fear and hatred of the word, research. I’m not using the term lightly; I’m using it precisely. His face would suffuse, he would turn red, and he would get violent if people used the term, research, in his presence. You can imagine how he felt, then, about the term, mathematical. The RAND Corporation was employed by the Air Force, and the Air Force had Wilson as its boss, essentially. Hence, I felt I had to do something to shield Wilson and the Air Force from the fact that I was really doing mathematics inside the RAND Corporation. What title, what name, could I choose? In the first place I was interested in planning, in decision making, in thinking. But planning, is not a good word for various reasons. I decided therefore to use the word, ‘programming.’ I wanted to get across the idea that this was dynamic, this was multistage, this was time-varying—I thought, let’s kill two birds with one stone. Let’s take a word that has an absolutely precise meaning, namely dynamic, in the classical physical sense. It also has a very interesting property as an adjective, and that is it’s impossible to use the word, dynamic, in a pejorative sense. Try thinking of some combination that will possibly give it a pejorative meaning. It’s impossible. Thus, I thought dynamic programming was a good name. It was something not even a Congressman could object to. So I used it as an umbrella for my activities (p. 159).

I think the same might be said of ‘forward.’

One thought on “You can’t go wrong with ‘dynamic’”

  1. I met Richard Bellman sometime in the early 1970s when he was on a visit to New Zealand. I have always remembered an observation that he made:
    “Mathematic, chess, music are the easiest disciplines in the world; there are child prodigies in all of them. But find me a child prodigy who can ensure hospital meals get to the right bedside while they are still hot.”


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