Carnegie Mellon University

egon balas

March 19, 2019

Remembering Egon Balas

Egon Balas, a pioneer in integer and disjunctive programming and University Professor of Industrial Administration and Applied Mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University, once admitted he had been convicted of a crime while being interviewed for jury duty. The charge: conspiracy to overthrow a government.

Balas, University Professor of Industrial Administration and Applied Mathematics and The Thomas Lord Professor of Operations Research at the Tepper School of Business, died on March 18, 2019. He was 96. His early life included two imprisonments—one for joining the communist party to oppose the Nazis during World War II and the second by the communist party after the war in a Stalinist purge. He later became one of the world’s foremost experts in mathematical optimization after joining Carnegie Mellon in 1967.

“A beloved member of the CMU faculty for more than half a century, Egon Balas was a preeminent and legendary scholar who was enormously influential in the fields of operations research and applied mathematics," said Farnam Jahanian, president of Carnegie Mellon University. “Throughout his long and distinguished career as a researcher and teacher, he applied bold, focused and independent thinking to solve complex problems and also demonstrated a profound sense of humility, character and good humor. His extraordinary life and legacy will continue to serve as an inspiration to the entire CMU community.”

Balas was born into a Hungarian-Jewish family in Cluj, Romania, in 1922. He studied math and physics in the well-known Jewish lyceum of Cluj, learning from top minds, who, because they were Jewish, were excluded from higher academic posts. 

After high school, Balas wanted to continue studies in physics but was blocked by anti-Semitic laws. Determined to fight Nazism, he joined the underground Hungarian Communist Party, distributing leaflets and helping to organize a strike. He was arrested by Fascist Hungarian authorities in 1944, tortured, and thought he would be killed.

Sentenced to 14 years of hard labor, he escaped during transport to Germany and made his way home, where he learned that all of his immediate family had been killed along with most of the 18,000 Jews who had lived in Cluj before the war. Fewer than 2,000 returned after it ended. In 1948, Balas married his wife, Edith, herself a Holocaust survivor who returned home to Romania after being released from Auschwitz at the end of the war. They celebrated their 70th anniversary this year.

Still in the Communist Party, Balas taught himself economics and changed his birth name, Blatt, a common Jewish surname, to Balas in order to serve in the Romanian government as economics director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During a power struggle in 1952, he was arrested by party leaders and put in solitary confinement for more than two years, again suffering torture. 

Released from prison in 1954, Balas became disenchanted with Communism, especially after a trip with his wife to the Soviet Union exposed economic conditions much worse than depicted in the state press. In a 2016 interview, available on Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) website, Balas describes the difficulty of his transition after spending decades trying to make economic sense of Marxism and Socialism. But he also says this disillusionment helped spur his turn to mathematics.

In 1959, at the age of 37, Balas immersed himself in the then-emerging field of linear programming, gaining recognition with a novel solution to a timber-harvesting problem.  He called his solution the Additive Algorithm, similar to what is known as implicit numeration or constraint propagation today. He later earned Ph.D. degrees in economics (University of Brussels, 1967) and mathematics (University of Paris, 1968).

Balas circulated his findings at several conferences, publishing them in 1965 in the journal Operations Research. It became one of the most oft-cited optimization papers of its day. William Cooper, the associate editor who worked with Balas on the article, later helped bring Balas to Carnegie Mellon in 1967. (Cooper is a founding faculty member of the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, forerunner to the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon.)

“As a University Professor and respected member of the Tepper School faculty, Egon epitomized the incredible work ethic and scholarly achievements that lie at the heart of our university’s academic culture,” said James H. Garrett, Jr., provost of Carnegie Mellon University and the Thomas Lord Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering. “His life journey was filled with courage and an earnest sense of discovery, and he brought these admirable qualities to the classroom to inspire every student he taught. We will always appreciate Egon’s dedication in seeing our university thrive, and will cherish all of his contributions that have enriched Carnegie Mellon’s culture of learning.”

During his time at CMU, Balas continued to develop new methods in the field of integer programming, in particular disjunctive programming. In 1995, he earned the prestigious John von Neumann Prize from the INFORMS, which is considered the Nobel Prize of operations research. In 2001, he won the EURO Gold Medal, and in 2006, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the IFORS Operational Research Hall of Fame. 

“We are greatly saddened to say goodbye to a remarkable person, valued colleague, and long-time member of the GSIA and Tepper School family,” said Bob Dammon, dean of the Tepper School of Business. “Egon Balas was a highly accomplished researcher in the field of applied mathematics and a true pioneer of the field of integer programming. He will be missed by all who had the great pleasure to know him and work alongside him.” 

For his scholarly contributions, Balas received honorary doctorates in mathematics from the University of Waterloo and Miguel Hernandez University in Elche, Spain. He was also inducted into the Hungarian Academy of Science and received the Humboldt Research Award for U.S. Senior Scientists from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Urged by his wife, Edith, Balas also wrote a well-received memoir, “Will to Freedom: A Perilous Journey Through Fascism and Communism,” published in 2000 by Syracuse University Press and available in six languages. He published his second book in 2019, “Disjunctive Programming,” a text that explores the disjunctive programming analytical technique that Balas introduced in 1974.

In addition, he also was an expert at ping-pong, competing in tournaments as a child. As an adult, he played tennis through his 95th year. 

For a man who spent much of the formative years of his life fighting oppression, Balas acknowledged that the academic freedom he had at Carnegie Mellon was very important to him. “To put it briefly I am still very, very grateful to Carnegie Mellon for this initial, enormous help, and all the later years when I was treated well,” he said in the INFORMS interview.

Balas is survived by his wife of 70 years, Edith, an Emeritus Professor of Art History at the College of Humanities & Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University; two children, Anna Balas and Vera Balas Koutsoyannis; three grandchildren, John Koutsoyannis, Robert (Bob) Koutsoyannis, and Alexander (Alex) Waldron; and four great-grandchildren.