Last update - 01:22 11/10/2005
Analysis / World honors contribution to game theory - and a noble player
By Ariel Rubinstein
Israel Robert Aumann is a man of Jerusalem. He loves this city where he settled
when he immigrated to Israel as a young man. He did most of his highly acclaimed
academic work here; the award of the Nobel Prize for Economics to Aumann
is also a "Jerusalem victory," in a cultural sense.
Aumann's field of research has been game theory - an attractive if rather
misleading name, since he does not delve into Monopoly or poker, but rather
constructs abstract models that explore how individuals react when they are
affected by other peoples' actions.
Game theory first became known to the public when Nash, Harsany and Zelten
won the Economics Nobel in 1995 and John Nash's life story became a book
and the magnificent Oscar-winning film, "A Beautiful Mind."
Many who ask what Israel Aumann has contributed to economics (not to mention
Israel's economy) may be disappointed. It is hard to describe his contributions
without slipping into absurd statements. Game theory has not produced cures
for incurable diseases or launched missiles to the moon. But it has changed
the way in which economists think.
Before Game theory, an economist looked at the world with the assumption
that each economic unit accepts prices as givens and reacts to them in optimal
fashion. Game theory also assumes that the decision maker (the player, in
the language of game theory) acts rationally in the sense that he maximizes
a subjective, well-defined cause.
Since the spread of game theory, the economic unit acts strategically: it
bases its decisions on examining the moves and considerations of the other
players. Aumann played a central role in the revolution of game theory in
economics, as one who invented new terms, researched them analytically and
recognized the connection between mathematical precision and human
Aumann influenced generations of students at Hebrew University. He was a
prime mover behind the Center for Rationality. Researchers in economics,
computer science, law, psychology, botany, humanities, mathematics, philosophy
and psychology meet daily for discussions in the center. The center's success
is only due to the boundless natural intellectual curiosity of Aumann and
his colleagues. I know of no other inter-disciplinary center anywhere
in the world as successful as this one.
Aumann does not suppress his feelings in his academic work. In a recent lecture,
he spoke of his work in game theory: discovering links between concepts
ostensibly distant from one another. He also spoke of his love for his late
wife Esther. In one of his beautiful essays co-written with Michael Maschler,
Aumann dealt with an issue from the Talmud's Ketubot tractate. The article
was dedicated to his son Shlomo, "A scholar and a man of the world," who
fell in battle in 1982.
Aumann is not a candidate to be governor of the Bank of Israel or strategic
adviser to the chief of staff. His specialty is understanding the logic of
strategic thought. Some believe that ultimately, this understanding will
be translated into the language of the gross domestic product, and others
believe game theory has no real value. In any case, the test of academic
endeavor is not in its immediate usefulness. Aumann is an academic paragon:
a scholar who devotes his life to work, study and teaching for their own
His political opinions are poles apart from my own. Nevertheless, I have
often found myself discussing political issues with him, discussing, not
arguing. He has always respected the opinions of others and was willing to
listen. I found in him tireless faith in the ability to persuade. Aumann
is a narrow bridge of understanding between isolated parts of the
When I hear lectures by Israel Aumann, a yeshiva student's voice echoes in
my head with devotion, clarity and enthusiasm. His winning the Nobel should
not be received pompously, but rather as a reminder of Jerusalem's huge potential
as a universal cultural center and as a reflection of the values we derive
from Jewish tradition.