Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Coming into OR

I realise that I came into OR at an interesting time. I had studied mathematics as an undergraduate, and wondered what to do with the degree. (Both my parents had mathematics degrees; father was a scientific civil servant working with radar, mother had been a teacher; but neither career appealed to me.) A helpful careers advisor took me through some of the options, based on what I had told him of myself, and I duly applied -- and was accepted -- onto a one year postgraduate course in OR. At the time (early 1970's) there were still many of the pioneers of OR in UK industry and universities still around, and there was a good buzz of meetings and new ideas. The one-year course exposed me to the theory, but far more important, the philosophy of OR. I stayed on to do research, and then joined the staff at the University of Exeter where I have been ever since.
It was a pioneering time in Exeter, setting up an undergraduate programme in "Mathematical Statistics and OR" (MSOR for short) and we had some stimulating years with annual cohorts of 20 to 30 students, who wanted to "do something with their mathematical skills, but not a mathematics degree".
We developed links with industry and ran some fascinating projects; maybe more of these later, when I have time.
My postgraduate work centred on the water supply industry, and we encountered a problem which (like the supermarket cashiers problem) is simple to state, but leads to more complexity as one gets into it. A water supply reservoir has many purposes. First, to store water to supply the users. For that it ought to be full. Second, to restrain floods. For that it needs to have space in it, and not be full. Third, to provide recreation. For that, the level should not fluctuate much, under normal circumstances. So what should the reservoir manager's policy be about releasing water, both in the short term (when floods are imminent) and in the long term, when the weather is calm. How can forecasts help? The problem was nicknamed the "Noah and Joseph" problem, by reference to Noah who encountered floods (a short-term phenomenon) and Joseph who dealt with droughts (long-term).

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