Over the holidays, I finally got around to watching The Fog of War, an Oscar winning documentary that interviews Robert McNamara. In addition to being Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam Years, McNamara was a math geek. The most interesting–and heartbreaking–part of this movie was the mathematics of making decisions under uncertainty. McNamara talks about several decisions that relied on mathematics and statistics. Here are three.
- Before becoming the Secretary of Defense in 1961, McNamara was in the Air Force during World War II. The choice to firebomb Japan in World War II was made because the statistics showed that this was a more precise way to inflict damage. This ultimately killed many civilians as well.
- Aircraft was used to stockpile fuel at an intermediate location to supply aircraft with fuel for attacks on Japan. He was able to show that this was not an effective way to stockpile fuel.
- McNamara was the President of the Ford Motor Company for five weeks before becoming the Secretary of Defense. During his time at Ford, he looked at traffic fatalities and attempted to quantify the fatalities that were caused by the car. One of the top causes of death was being impaled on the steering column. This inspired new safety designs as well as seatbelt laws. Read more here.
The Fog of War makes me want to learn more about the history of OR in the military and other great histORical moments.
The recently released Milk reveals that the first openly gay politician Harvey Milk was a mathematician, so I’ll have to check that out soon.