Opinion

Emanuel Derman

Dog’s Lives

Emanuel Derman
Aug 5, 2012 17:49 UTC

I am in Santa Fe, NM, about to spend a few weeks at the Santa Fe Institute where I hope to learn something about market microstructure and agent-based models.

Everyone in Santa Fe (i.e. the few people I’ve met thru work here in the past — I wrote a chapter of Models.Behaving.Badly here in 2009, using their excellent library) seems to think Santa Fe is paradise on earth, and maybe it is, though I prefer paradise on the seashore. I  have this atavistic urge to find a place that is easygoing but has access to culture, and yet lets you back off from the discontents and irritations of politics and corporations. People here seem to think this is it. But, I should add, people here seem to be close to retirement.

One of the points I tried to make in Models.Behaving.Badly was that models were analogies, comparing something you don’t understand to something you do, e.g. a nucleus to a liquid drop, or stock returns to smoke diffusion, whereas theories were (attempts to discover) absolute (rather than relative) descriptions of phenomena (e.g. Newton’s laws or relativity). I spent an evening with an accomplished physicist here, and was pleased to see that he agreed. When I was here last I read Maxwell’s papers from the 1860s; he called his final description of the electromagnetic field a theory, having first tried a bunch of metaphorical models to warm up his intuition and understanding.

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En route here, Aaron Brown emailed to ask how I came up with the title My Life as a Quant, as background to an article he’s writing. This led me to the following recollection:

When my kids were really small, no more than three or four years old, I used to love to take them to entertainment that was simultaneously enjoyable for adults and children, eve if on different level. On TV you could find Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. For live performances, among others I had lucky strikes with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at a theater on 2nd Ave, The Paper Bag Players at Symphony Space, a show of Randy Newman songs in the East Village. I remember my son becoming mesmerized by the latter.

Physicists & economists, influence & responsibility

Emanuel Derman
Sep 2, 2011 17:01 UTC

I grew up in a post-WWII world where, temporarily, because of their capacity to create devices that wreak destruction, physicists had lots of influence in government. Think Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller. By the time I went to graduate school at Columbia, the U.S. was involved in Vietnam, and a new bunch of much younger physicists were active in JASON, a Government advisory group. There were many protests against JASON at Columbia in the Sixties, as a result of mild-mannered physicists writing reports with titles (I recall)  like “Interdiction of Trucks By Night,” apparently to do with bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Recently someone claimed that JASON stood for “Junior Achiever, Somewhat Older Now” which captured the hubris of scientists at the time. Influence and power is seductive.

Those days are over. The Cold War is faded, and the Superconducting Collider is dead.  No one cares too much about physicists any more, and won’t, unless the string theorists can come up with a doomsday weapon. (Actually, there’s a 2005 Herman Wouk novel about the political consequences of a Higgs boson gap between the U.S. and China.)

Physicists had only  indirect political  influence; their ability to accurately harness nature’s powers via pure science and accurate engineering based on that science gave them power over presidents, and made people think they might be smart about other things too. Biologists are the real 21st Century physicists in that sense, and, like them, in the long run have the larger influence on the future. As Feynman wrote about Maxwell, From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.” There are biologists like Darwin and Watson and Crick for whom the same is true.

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