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Tom Schelling — Human touch to Game Theory

Sangamitra Ramachander

THE Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel, popularly known as the Nobel Prize in Economics, is shared this year by Mr Thomas C. Schelling and Mr Robert J. Aumann.

These names and their academic work remind you time and again of the number of steps you must climb in the giant intellectual pyramid before understanding comes naturally.

However, I must admit that, while I read the names of Nobel winners every year with some distant awe, I have not felt any affection.

But this year it's different. Hearing of Schelling winning the Nobel, I am delighted. And that's not a word you hear or use easily in this serious business of Economics. But that is precisely what makes Schelling such a noteworthy, welcome and inspirational exception in his field.

When I chose to register for a class at the School of Public Affairs (I was a student at the Department of Economics), it was certainly not because I felt the need to learn more Game Theory. I had studied it in detail in my own department. My decision was rather based on curiosity. My roommate then - also a student of Schelling - couldn't say enough about him. I spent so many evening hours listening to her stories about how enjoyable his classes were that I decided that I had to see for myself. It turns out I made it just on time, as I was told that I had taken the last seat available, and that registration for Schelling's class was closed.

I am reluctant to be verbose in describing what it is like to be taught by Schelling, as he himself is so judicious in his use of words.

But there are many things about him that leave his students, or perhaps anybody who meets him, with such a deep impression. The first thing that struck me was that here was somebody who explained every concept in Economics without a trace of jargon.

Tom Schelling taught Economics as a process of observation of actual human behaviour. One asked oneself often in his class "What would I do if I were in that situation?" That's when you realised that you were being taught by somebody who actually created parts of the discipline of Economics and he was simply showing you how he had discovered them for himself.

What was amazing was how easy and intuitive it was to understand, and I felt less betrayed by the definition of Economics being a study of human behaviour.

In his classes, one would hear of evenings he spent with Presidents and Prime Ministers, and yet never once did Schelling come across as anything but a completely approachable and gentle human being. His patience was simply extraordinary, and he seemed always an oasis of calm.

So, I will end this little celebration of his winning the great prize with the few words that I jotted down on the card we gave to him on our last day of class.

Possibly for want of space and time, I got straight to the point, and I am quite sure I speak the thoughts of many of his students when I say this. Professor Schelling taught us as much about humility as he did about Game Theory.

(A recent student of Thomas Schelling at University of Maryland).

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Tom Schelling — Human touch to Game Theory


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