Voices from the field

An Interview with Nobel Prize Winner Robert Aumann

By Brett Kopin

Robert Aumann is an Israeli American who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for his work in game theory. Israel has more Nobel prize winners per capita than any other country, and Aumann is one of the contributing reasons for this. Brett Kopin had the opportunity to interview him, and below is the transcribed interview with related questions to bring this conversation to your learners for continued discussion.

What sparked your interest or passion for math and economics?

There are two different questions here: one is math, the other one is economics:

With math, what sparked my passion and interest was a high school teacher by the name of Abraham Gansler, who taught in New York in the '40s and '50s and maybe early '60s of the last century. He was an excellent teacher, and I fell in love with mathematics. I studied high school geometry. The challenge of it, the logic, the theorems and proofs, the constructions, they really caught my imagination. Most math did not, but that did. That is real mathematics, unlike most of the high school mathematics, which is like cookbook stuff and not real mathematics. That was what got me interested in math, and I carried it on in college and in graduate school.

Now, you asked about economics also. I took a course in economics in college and I was bored and baffled by it and dropped the course in three weeks. My interest in economics came much later and it was really sparked by my interest in mathematics and specifically in game theory. I met John Nash when I was in graduate school. We got to be friendly and he explained game theory to me and I did not think it was very interesting at that point. After graduating, I went to work for an operations research consulting outfit. They did practical consulting for real companies doing work on real projects. I saw that game theory was the right tool for dealing with their projects. That got me interested in game theory and from game theory I got into economics, mathematical economics, and the foundation of economics, and that is the story.

  • Think about an influential mentor or teacher you’ve had. How did he/she impact you?
  • What is something that you've learned that has really caught your imagination?
  • What can Aumann’s story about Abraham Gansler tell us about the role or power of an educator?

What has been a significant challenge in your work?

Maybe the biggest challenge is getting your paper published. You know, let me say this: Since getting the Nobel Prize I’ve had more rejections of papers by scientific publications than in my whole previous academic life combined.

How do you account for that?

The bar goes up. I was awarded the prize for the whole body of my work throughout the years, but the thing that got the most emphasis was something I did in 1959, close to 60 years ago, and everything went from there.

The specific angle that I attacked in 1959 was the matter of repeated games. If you are involved in a situation which is repeated again and again, what I showed was that in such a situation, cooperation is more likely to cause a win-win than a one-shot interaction.

  • What motivates you to explore and create?
  • Describe a significant contribution or achievement you have made (or would like to make) to the world around you.
  • What challenges would you like to overcome in your life?

What was it like for you to receive the Nobel Prize?

The most moving moment was not the actual receiving of the prize (though that was moving also) but standing in front of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm and somebody said, 'Look at the roof' and there on the roof there were seven flags. The flag of Sweden was in the middle, and then there were six flags representing the countries of all the Nobel Prize winners and right there next to the flag of Sweden was the flag of Israel. That was a very moving moment.

What inspires you?

I think the history of the Jewish people inspires me. You know, in our prayers we say three times a day, we ask G-d to return to Jerusalem, His city, and I decided that with the formation of the State of Israel, G-d is returning to His city and I would follow Him and be a part of that. That’s one thing that inspires me.

  • What do you think Aumann is saying here?
  • In what ways do you feel connected with Israel and Jewish history?
  • How does Israel and/or Jewish history motivate you to act and why?

What would your children or grandchildren say about your work?

Well, I guess you have to ask them. Thank G-d I have five children, one of whom was killed, by the way, in Lebanon in 1982, but his wife, who is remarried, is like a daughter to us, so I have five children, and I have 21 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren, going on 15. So that’s it, I don’t know what to say but I’m very close with my family. I do a lot of activities with them, I study with many of my grandchildren. So it’s great having such a nice family.

If you could impart one lesson to your children, what would it be?

I think people should do in life what they like to do – not what they think makes the most money, not what their parents tell them, but what they like. If you like something then you’ll do it well, and if you do it well, you will succeed. That’s it.

  • How does family impact your life and your accomplishments?
  • What does it mean to leave a legacy?
  • What is one lesson you would like to impart on your future children and grandchildren?