Thursday, October 12, 2017

Lessons from the Nobel Prizes

We've had a big week of awards with the Nobel Prizes and the MacArthur "Genius" Fellows. The MacArthur Fellows include two computer scientists, Regina Barzilay and Stefan Savage, and a statistician Emmanuel Candès but no theoretical computer scientists this year.

No computer scientists among the Nobel Laureates either but technology played a large role in the chemistry and physics prize. The chemistry prize went for a fancy microscope that could determine biomolecular structure. The LIGO project that measures extremely weak gravitational waves received the physics prize.

In a sign of the times, Jeffrey Hall, one of the medical prize recipients, left science due to lack of funding.

The economics prize went to Richard Thaler who described how people act irrationally but often in predictable ways such as the endowment effect that states the people give more value to an object they own versus one they don't currently have. The book Thinking Fast and Slow by 2002 Laureate Daniel Kahneman does a great job describing these behaviors.

While at Northwestern I regularly attended the micro-economics seminars many of which tried to give models that described the seemingly irrational behaviors that researchers like Thaler brought to light. My personal theory: Humans evolved to have these behaviors because while they might not be the best individual choices they make society better overall.


  1. Is your last comment a generalization of the altruism problem? If so, it doesn't seem to me to be explanatory. The mechanism by which individual choice aggregates to group beneficial trait is still unstated, yes?

  2. They make it better in what way? Is this some sort of feel-good idea, or can you substantiate it with an argument?

  3. Lance, your personal theory is a group selection claim, and those are very rarely correct, see for example

  4. So what do we do if we have a solution for the 3-SAT ?