Sunday, June 14, 2020

Ten of the Smartest People I Know

  • He testified before Congress about the dangers Near-Earth Asteroids pose to humanity.
  • He was Executive Vice President and director of research for the Space Studies Institute in Princeton, NJ.
  • He was Vice President of Publications of the Aerospace and Electronics Systems Society of IEEE.
  • He was the chairman of the Planetary Defense Committee of AIAA
  • He served as a consultant to the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board and the NATO Industrial Advisory Board.
  • He was co-founder and 3rd president of the National Council of Systems Engineering.
  • He taught graduate-level engineering courses at USC for over 20 years.
  • He rubbed elbows with high-profile physicists like Freeman Dyson and Neil DeGras Tyson
  • He wrote a Chapter in the seminal work “The High Frontier” by Gerry O’Neil
  • He was an elected fellow of the IEEE, INCOSE and IAE engineering societies.
And all that was AFTER he retired from Northrop corp. as a Senior Vice President!

[Editor's note: My dad died on May 31, 2020.  I'm setting up this blog post as a tribute and a shrine to one of the smartest and humblest people I've ever met.  Even most of his co-workers were unaware of his level of accomplishment.  This post has nothing at all to do with photography, but read on and get to know a most remarkable person.  -GF]
George was born in New York in 1928 to Ruth and Sander Friedmann, both new immigrants to America.  Sander died of Tuberculosis when George was a teenager, leaving him to be raised only by his mom.

George loved math and chess and science fiction books, and aimed to go to Caltech to become a physicist.   “Just go to UCLA for the first two years and then transfer over.  It’s cheaper!” said his high school guidance counselor.  After spending 2 years he discovered that Caltech didn’t take transfer students, you have to start with them as a freshman or forget it.  So he completed his degree in Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley, then went back to UCLA to get his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Engineering.  Not too shabby.

He served in the Navy AND in the Army.  While in the Army he was stationed in Huntsville, where he worked under Dr. Verner von Braun and other German rocket scientists.

By modern standards he had relatively few employers: the Department of Water and Power (which he admits he quickly outgrew), then a small company called Servomechanisms, then Northrop where he spent 34 years.  Sometime in there he married Ruthanne in 1953 and had 3 kids.

It took him 11 years to get his Ph. D.  That was such a long time that UCLA has since capped the number of years to get a degree to no more than 7.  They probably called it the George Friedman law.  Anyway, for his dissertation, he created a mathematical technique called “Constraint Theory”.  It applies to very large systems like B2 Bombers or Amraam missiles (two top-secret programs he worked on), where you have millions of variables and millions of unknowns and the system is so complex that you have requirements that are in conflict with each other but nobody knows it.  This inevitably results in cost overruns and schedule delays, problems that plague every aerospace company.  Constraint theory helps you quickly identify the requirements that are in conflict, makes suggestions on which variables to nail down, and even allows you to perform tradeoff analysis in multiple directions, something not usually allowed with conventional computer-based models.  George’s published paper on Constraint Theory earned him the highest IEEE award in 1969, out of 3000 papers submitted.

Me and my Dad at Northrop Galactic
Headquarters, 1985
This could have been Northrop’s secret weapon, if only upper management understood it better.  Alas, they never embraced it.  The world actually ignored his theory until a few years ago, when we learned that is now the basis of a commercial software product in Europe; targeted at automobile manufacturers.  How many inventors get to see their inventions embraced within their lifetimes?
At Northrop he had earned the enduring nickname “Humble Primate” from his peers at Galactic Headquarters.

Lecturing to a class at CalTech
George was so good at what he did that when working on a proposal for the Navy, the Navy stipulated that George Friedman must be part of the implementation team when they awarded the contract.  I’ve worked on Federal Procurement contracts in my life; I can tell you that kind of thing (naming a specific individual to work on a project) never happens in government.

Teaching at USC
After retiring he spent the next 22 years teaching graduate-level engineering courses at USC, ranging from risk management, systems engineering, and Constraint Theory, a topic that USC continues to teach to this day.  It was during this time that I helped him write a book on Constraint Theory, a project I deem to be one of the more important things I’ve done in my life.  

(And this was awarded to him
by his engineering peers!)
Character-wise, he had a lot of qualities I’ve always wanted to emulate.  He never raised his voice and always was a level-headed thinker.  He was generous to a fault; believing that education was the most important thing he could give to his kids and grandkids.  He loved white Chevys (“Because white is the safest color”).  He encouraged me in all of my endeavors, whether they were illegal telephone modifications, or quitting a secure job at NASA to start my own company.  He even helped me clear the way to travel to the Soviet Union as a photojournalist during the cold war, a dangerous move for someone whose father and brother worked in the defense industry.  Even if he thought it was a bad idea he kept that to himself; and I often didn’t find out until years later.

His generosity was often balanced out by wisdom.  The first time he gave me and my brothers a financial “gift”, it was accompanied by the most memorable thing he’s ever written.  This encapsulates his essence so perfectly, that I’d like to share part of it with you here:

Money is, at the most, the fifth most important thing....

The most important thing we gave to you, infinitely more important than all the rest, is life itself.  You are a link in the billions of years long chain of life, not one with the stones and the stars.

Secondly, infinitely more important than the rest, we gave you your genetic blueprint.  You are a member of the most intelligent and curious species on earth, not one with the worms and beasts.

Third, infinitely more important than the rest, we gave you unconditional love.  No matter what happens or what you do, you had and will continue to have our love beyond measure.

Fourth, infinitely more important than all the rest, we gave you interests and values:  Loyalty, self esteem, sense of humor, love of science and music, honor, trustworthiness, the value of friendship and achievement though hard work.

Not his dog.  Long story.
Fifth, and clearly the least important in the list of valuable things, we gave you money.  Wisely used, we hope it can give you a sense of security, freedom, and opportunity to realize your dreams; that it will help to increase your sense of hope and dispel the uncertain edge of fear.

Beware the foolish uses of money, uses that diminish your natural desires to achieve and succeed on your own, uses that diminish your joy of accomplishment, that even fund unhealthful habits.

And then, he added almost as a joke:

Even more, beware the prejudices, unfounded fears, ignorance, laziness, greed, procrastination, impatience, narrow-mindedness, envy, unjustified pride and overly cautious postures we may have taught you.

All this from a guy who designed missiles to bomb the shit out of the Ruskies! 

He also was active in the Havurah, a social club orchestrated by Valley Beth Shalom temple, where he would regularly give lectures merging Jewish thought and modern-day science, taking the kind of 30,000 foot view that normal people just can’t attain.  Below is one such video.  There are others where he pulls together the unifying efforts of Abraham, Decartes, Isaac Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and von Neumann – all giants in their respective fields.

One of my Dad's lectures on Jewish Philosophy and Science.  (Also watch out for some cameos of me in my youth.) (Like the one at the beginning.)   If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, you can start at 30:43 as he uses scientific ideas to bridge the gap between Judaism's dual nature of God: Adonai and Elochim. 

His great grandson is a chess enthusiast too.
Here they were just before the pandemic.
I won’t talk much about his Alzheimers years, other to say that unlike many dementia patients, he remained the happiest guy in the world up to the end.  And even when he couldn’t tell you the names of his grandkids or great grandkids, or remember what happened just two minutes ago, he still could play a mean game of chess.  He could even strategize three moves ahead!  

Dad, I’m going to miss you.  You were ten of the smartest people I know.  I’ll miss your boundless thirst for knowledge, your patient teachings, your love for systems engineering, and of course your encouraging nature.  Thank you for being.

Memorial video compiled by David Friedman

Until next time,
Yours Truly, Gary Friedman



  1. I am sorry for your lost. It's not the loud and the pompous that change the world. It's the people who know what they're doing and quietly go about doing what they do best that changes everything. When you do something that you love, and do the best that you can, it matters. Large ways and small, these people change the world.

  2. יהיה זכרו ברוך
    May his memory be blessed

  3. Gary, We are blessed to have such people as your father in this world.In times like the world is experiencing today we very much need such people.
    Thank you for sharing with us the story/life of your father.

  4. Gary - Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to learn a little about your father. I never met him, but I learned so much about him in a short time. He lived such a full life and appears to have mastered the concept of "Work-Life" balance. I found his application of the Talmud to Northrup fascinating, and quite useful. And his scientific application at the end of the video was eye-opening. I would normally say, "Sorry for your loss", but in this case I would like to modify that and say, "Sorry for our loss". Whether people knew George or not, his passing is a loss for all. With my deepest sympathy, Rich

  5. I had the unique chance in my life to visit him at home and get to know him. His way and especially the way he dealt with mathematics impressed and influenced me very much. Many thanks for your life's work! The Constraint Theory will live on.

    Markus Behle - a part of the "Stuttgart trio" (that's what he called us)

  6. Gary: thank you for the summary of some of your father's background. I worked with him after he retired and he and I were consultants to Northrop Grumman. I visited him at home more than once 10+ years ago. Brilliant, attentive, supportive, polite, and courteous are but a few of the descriptors that apply to him. He was a supporter of me becoming an INCOSE Fellow, and I miss him. May God bless the entire family.

  7. It is people like your father that makes this a better world for all of us - & the kind that give me hope in a crazy mixed up world

  8. Thank you for sharing the loving and wonderful memories of your dad, Gary. What a great man! My love to you and your family. xoxo

  9. Sorry for your Loss Gary. I'm so glad I read about your Dad I think he is someone I would have liked.

  10. Your father sounds like he lived life large! More people should aspire to make the kind of positive difference he had on the world.

  11. ברוך דיין אמת!
    Indeed amazing person. Nice memorial blog!
    Sorry for your loss! Thanks for sharing his life and smarts!

  12. Hello Gary.
    May God bless you and comfort you on the loss of your father. Well done on honouring him and sharing his memory as you have. Enjoyed the note on the five most important things.

  13. Superb! Thanks for sharing his wonderful stories!

  14. Only an exceptional son would devote such a wonderful blog to an exceptional man. I'm sorry for your loss. May his memory be for a blessing.

  15. Dear Gary, I feel sorry for your loss of your father. I think he guided you a lot and was a great idol for you.
    Be strong, Wolfram

  16. Gary,
    Thank you for this great tribute to your dad. Truly great fathers are hard to come by. I had one and can appreciate everything you said. Particularly fascinating is his love of Systems Engineering. One of my favorite courses as an undergrad and something that has application everywhere, every day. Very sad to lose such a brilliant mind, wonderful friend and father.

  17. Sono molto dispiaciuto per la dipartita del tuo papà! Ma nel dolore sono contento che tu abbia potuto goderlo fino alla fine con l'amore figliale che ti contraddistingue.
    Paolo I.

  18. Thank you for creating this to share. I truly regret not having met your father. I have a sense of him from knowing the man that you are. My deepest sympathy to you and all your family.

  19. I had the pleasure of attending two of Dr. Friedman's graduate classes at USC. He was a great professor and a phenomenal story teller. He made his experiences sound attainable with hard work, education, and a little luck. In reality, he was one of a kind and we can only hope to have a fraction of his accomplishments in our lifetimes.


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