In 1939, George Dantzig arrived late for a graduate-level statistics class at the University of California, Berkeley. On the board were two problems of “unsolved” statistics that George mistook for a homework assignment. He copied them down and started working on them from home, six weeks later he turned in the work late, hoping to get at least some credit for the assignment but nothing great. Dantzig’s statistic professor later notified him of what he achieved and the impact it would have on the math community.
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.