There’s a specific technique for finding the optimal solution to complex problems (typically mathematical or computer programming problems) by breaking them into simpler sub-problems – each of which only needs to be solved once, optimally – and then combining the results of those sub-problems to arrive at the final solution. It’s called “Dynamic Programming“. Sounds sexy! But when you get into it, you notice that there’s really nothing dynamic about it. When you start down the DP path for a problem, you don’t find yourself in an exciting world of fast and forceful – dynamic! – things to think about; rather, it’s more about carefully and deliberately rethinking the problem at hand until you find a way to flip it on its head, or turn it inside out, or maybe even solve it backwards.
And the name doesn’t actually refer to computer programming. It’s about mathematical programming: finding the best possible solution from the set of all possible solutions, given some definition of ‘best’. That DP is often used in computer programming today is coincidence.
So where does the name come from?
The man who came up with the name, Richard Bellman, explains:
“I spent the Fall quarter (of 1950) at RAND. My first task was to find a name for multistage decision processes. 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 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.”