Robert Aumann, Teacher Laureate

By Leonard Fein

Published October 21, 2005, issue of October 21, 2005.
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The two winners of the 2005 Nobel prize in economics were announced the other day: Thomas Schelling, now at the University of Maryland, (before that, for many years, at Harvard University), and Robert Aumann of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Paul Samuelson aside, the winners of the Nobel in economics usually are not well known by the (educated) general public, and Aumann in particular fits that description; they generally work on somewhat esoteric subjects that are not part of conventional daily discourse.

In the case of Schelling and Aumann, the field to which they have made the immense contributions that were the occasion for the prize is called game theory. When I learned of the award, that is just about all I knew —save that Aumann has been long affiliated with the Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Rationality.

And there I might have left it had I not chanced on a photo of Aumann that appeared in the Israeli press the day after the announcement. I confess: I begin with the assumption that a distinguished professor who holds dual citizenship as an American and an Israeli, whose doctorate is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and whose field is “rationality” is going to look — well, familiar to me. But no: Aumann, who is 75 years old, has a long — very long — white beard, and perched on his head is a yarmulke. So much for idle stereotypes.

Thus caught unawares, I was intrigued. Who is this man, and what is he about?

Well, he is, of course, “about” game theory. We’ll get to that. But the biographical details are not without interest.

Aumann came to the United States with his family from Germany when he was 8, on the eve of the World War II; he made aliya when he was 26, and since then he has been a member of Hebrew University’s Department of Mathematics. As to why he chose to immigrate to Israel, we have his own words, delivered the other day at a Hebrew University ceremony honoring his award.

The president of the university, Menachem Magidor, spoke first and lamented the condition of higher education in Israel. “I’m convinced,” he said, “that for the next 10 years, Israeli scientists will be winning Nobel prizes, but they are the fruit of the investment of the last 30 to 40 years. But will there be a Nobel prize-winning scientist in another 30 to 40 years? I have major doubts about that.” And he then launched into a critique of inadequate government investment in higher education. Magidor was followed by Science and Technology Minister Matan Vilnai, who described a program he has initiated to encourage Israeli scientists to return to Israel after they’ve studied abroad.

And then there’s Aumann: “If a scientist chooses to work in the United States, good luck to him. This country [Israel] is for those who want to work in it, and those who have the determination, spiritual devotion and sensitivities. I wanted to come and live here.” Now there’s a free market for you.

A word about game theory, lest it remain an undecipherable mystery, this in the language of the Rationality Center itself: “[Game theory] studies what happens when rational agents with different goals interact, each making its own decisions on the basis of what is best for itself, while taking into account that the others are doing the same. These ideas underlie much of economic theory, and have also had an important influence in [many other fields].”

Surely the most curious area within the Rationality Center is the Beehavior Lab, wherein the behavior of bumblebees is studied. Among the several questions of interest to the ecologists who work there: Can bees count? Go figure, as it were.

Aumann is the author of an intriguing (and quite accessible) paper, “Game Theory in the Talmud.” (The paper is dedicated to the memory of his son, Shlomo, a “Talmudic scholar and man of the world,” who fell in the first days of Israel’s war in Lebanon in 1982.) The paper takes a defiantly cryptic problem in bankruptcy that appears in the Baylonian Talmud: If a man dies leaving debts that are larger than his estate can pay, how should his estate be divided among his creditors?

While the problem is common, the Talmud’s proposed solution has stumped scholars until now. But, armed with game theory, Aumann uncovers what might have been, or perhaps must have been, the logic of the ancient sages. Along his elegant way, we learn that Aumann is not only a distinguished mathematician and an imposing figure in game theory, but also a close student of the Talmud.

All this easily might have elicited a dayenu — enough for the Nobel committee, enough for me, for sure. But it is actually something else that caught my eye as I poked into the biography and work of the laureate.

I have taught in three universities and have, in that context, read quite carefully the curriculum vitae of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of scholars. One learns what to expect: The academic appointments, the major lectures, the consulting work, the visiting professorships and honorary degrees. Aumann’s is the first I ever have seen that includes, as well, the names of the doctoral dissertation candidates he has supervised.

Why? At the same Hebrew University ceremony I mentioned previously, he spoke of what he’d learned from his wife, who died seven years ago: The students are the real prize. “The Nobel Prize is a wonderful thing… but I don’t think that winning the Nobel Prize is the peak…. There will always be research, students, and students of students, until the end of generations.”

I hope the Nobel citation says not only “extraordinary scholar,” but also: Teacher. He deserves it.

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