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hardy's 11

G. H. Hardy leading his cricket team out onto the pitch.

There is a brief period in a professor’s life when they are the lion of the dinner table and toast of the town. Its when the children of their friends and contemporaries are about to enter college. To my colleagues near and far I say enjoy the attention while you can.

What advice did I offer when called upon to do so?

Don’t worry. Your child has already made the most important decision of their lives and done so correctly. They chose you as a parent.

`No, seriously, how can my child make it to a top school?’, was the invariable reply. Followed by a reminder of the ostensibly low acceptance rates at `top’ colleges. `Don’t worry,’ I would repeat, `arithmetic is on your side.’

Each year about 30,000 students apply to Harvard. About 10,000 of these will be summarily rejected on academic grounds. That leaves about 20,000. Not all of them will get into Harvard. However, most of them are applying to the same subset of schools. There are 7 Ivy League schools, plus MIT, Stanford & Caltech. Throw in the University of Chicago and Berkeley. Collectively, these institutions enroll about 20,000 students in their freshman classes. This is not counting Duke, Northwestern, Michigan and UCLA.

`But, but, isn’t all that hard work, focus and diligence wasted if they don’t get into Stanford, MIT or Harvard?’

No, those habits will serve them throughout their lives not just at admission. Admissions is a lottery among those who make the `grade’. If the `losing ticket’ is Cornell or Chicago, its a lottery with no downside! How often does life present you with with such an opportunity.

The Fields medals will be awarded this week in Seoul. What does the future hold for the winners? According to Borjas and Doran, declining productivity caused by a surfeit of dilettantism. The data point to a decline in productivity. By itself this is uninteresting. Perhaps all those on the cusp of 40, see a decline in productivity. What Borjas and Doran rely on is a degree of randomness in who gets a medal. First, there is the variation in tastes of the selection committee (Harish Chandra, for example, was eliminated on the grounds that one Bourbaki camp follower sufficed). Second, the arbitrary age cutoff (the case of the late Oded Schramm is an example of this). Finally, what is the underlying population? Borjas and Doran argue that by using a collection of lesser prizes and honors one can accurately identify the subset of mathematicians who can be considered potential medalists. These are the many who are called, of which only a few will be chosen. The winners are compared to the remaining members of this group. Here is the conclusion (from the abstract):

We compare the productivity of Fields medalists (winners of the top mathematics prize) to that of similarly brilliant contenders. The two groups have similar publication rates until the award year, after which the winners’ productivity declines. The medalists begin to `play the field,’ studying unfamiliar topics at the expense of writing papers.

The prize, Borjas and Doran suggest, like added wealth, allows the winners to consumer more leisure in the sense of riskier projects. However, the behavior of the near winners is a puzzle. After 40, the greatest prize is beyond their grasp. One’s reputation has already been established. Why don’t they `play the field’ as well?

One of the most engaging books of academic politics, is C. P. Snow’s `The Masters’. In it,  a scene describing the debate between factions (Science and Arts) over who should be elected to a college fellowship. The master is in the Arts camp. One of the Science camp urges his candidate upon the college with these words (from memory, as my copy is beyond my reach): “He has written the absolute last word on the subject.” To which the master, responds: “Why can’t you chaps ever have the first word on the subject?” As the narrator, Eliot notes, it was an impolitic response, but recognizes that the master could not resist because it felt good on the tongue.

From Swansea comes another example  of the inability to resist something that felt good on the tongue. A note from the head of Swansea University’s school of management to his colleagues (do they still have those at UK universities?):

 Some wags call for the removal of some or all of the school’s top management team. Yes, well don’t hold your breath. Or actually, do.

The other day, Andrew Postlewaite remarked that it is very hard to find a PhD economist whose academic ancestor thrice removed, was not a mathematician. Put differently, which PhD economists can trace their lineage back to Marshal, Keynes and perhaps even the Scottish master himself? An obvious problem is that it is unclear what it means for so&so to be one’s academic father. A strict definition might be thesis advisor. However, the PhD degree as we know it (some combination of study and research apprenticeship) is a relatively new thing. Arguably, the first modern PhD was granted by Yale in the early 1900s. Doctorate degrees were available in Germany prior to that. However, that degree was awarded upon submission of a body of work. There was no formal apprenticeship requirement. The UK did not introduce a doctorate degree until the early 1900s and that mimicked the German degree (and was introduced, apparently, to compete for US students who were flocking to Germany).

So, lets start at Yale with Irving Fisher. A celebrated economist, and justly so, at an institution that was the first to hand out PhD degrees. Fisher himself was a student of Josiah Willard Gibbs (mathematician and physicist, and, if you believe the mathematical genealogy project, descended from Poisson). What about Fisher’s descendants? Not a single of one of the laudatory pieces on Fisher here mention his students. Some digging uncovered James Harvey Rogers, who went on to become Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale and a panjandrum in the treasury. The university maintains an archive of his papers . Rogers also studied with Pareto. Rogers begat Walt Whitman Rostow. Rostow begat Everett Clyde Upshaw and that is where the line ends.

Lets try one more, Richard T. Ely, after whom the AEA has named one of its lecture series and credited as a founder of land economics. The Kirkus review of 1938 warmly endorses his biography, `The Ground Under our Feet.’ Ely begat John R. Commons, W. A. Scott and E. A. Ross. Commons begat Edwin Witte,  the father of social security. Wikipedia credits Commons with influencing Gunnar Myrdal, Oliver Williamson and Herbert Simon, but `influencing’ is not the same as thesis advisor. But, this line seems promising, however other duties intrude.

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