Larry Summers is not one of my favorite economists. Maybe I don’t know enough to make judgments, but I can’t forgive him for railroading Bill Clinton into overly relaxing controls on Wall Street in 2000, eventually contributing to disaster in 2008. But what a beautiful remembrance Summers has written about his uncle, Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow, who just passed away.
As Summers notes, his other uncle was another legendary economist, Paul Samuelson, “Summers” being an anglicization of “Samuelson.” Summers writes of a family party, held when he was in college, in which the two uncles got into an excited discussion over an arcane mathematical concept, Pontryagin’s Maximum Principle. It was late at night, and the two men’s wives were getting antsy, presumably having had long experience bearing these interminable discussions.
It reminded me of an incident some years ago in Berkeley. I was sitting in a cafe near the campus, and in came famous statisticians Leo Breiman and Peter Bickel, who sat down at a table near me. (I had met Breiman a few times but didn’t know him, and had never met Bickel, and thus was not involved in their conversation, just happened to overhear some.) There is no Nobel Prize in Statistics, but both men would deserve one. (Both are in the National Academy of Sciences.)
Well, they too got into a highly animated conversation about the latest theorem Breiman had proven. He said, excitedly, “It turns out that…,” math talk for “I just proved something quite counterintuitive.” Breiman was near 80 at the time (he passed away not too long afterward) and Bickel was in his 60s. I marveled that they had such enthusiasm for their work, talking like a couple of teenagers on the latest rock group.
Breiman’s passion for statistics (his work is also widely cited in machine learning) manifested itself in other ways, notably K-12 education. Among other things, he once held a seat on the Santa Monica school board.
Good for Breiman and Bickel, and for Summers’ two famous uncles (and OK, good for Summers too). They exemplify what is missing in all the talk of the importance of STEM in the U.S. Most STEM research today is very incremental, almost formulaic, done by people who are obsessed with climbing the academic ladder but with no true passion for their fields. Frankly, a lot of it is make-work, strategically designed to bring in the most grant money and maximize the length of the researcher’s CV. It would be unimaginable for those CV builders to run for the school board, or basically do anything other than robotically accumulating all those increments. And the amount of self-promotion these days is appalling. None of this is going to bring the major breakthroughs that will help the U.S. continue to lead the world in STEM. And don’t get me started on Tiger Mom-ism.
We need more people like Arrow, Samuelson, Breiman, Bickel and so on, who are first and foremost scholars, not academic entrepreneurs. Yet our system more and more discourages that kind of thing, and rewards the CV builders. Sad story.