Take My Model -- Please!

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The Debt theme issue of the New York Times Magazine features a tongue-in-cheek interview with Myron Scholes, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics as a developer of the Black-Scholes options pricing theory that helped create modern finance, a founder of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, and a Clinton-era case study in the perils of brilliance.

Scholes reports that

a friend of mine did tell me that when he was a physicist and wanted to get a job in finance, he interviewed at a bank, and the bank asked what he was working on, and he did say, "Black holes." And they said: "Great! You're working on Black-Scholes? You're hired."

No joke. An essay in the Financial Times by Sam Jones, about the Chinese-born Canadian mathematician David Li and the origin and unintended consequences of actuarial models in calculating mortgage default risks, reports:

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the arms race and, in 1993, the cancellation by the US congress of the superconducting super collider - intended to be the world's greatest physics experiment - particle physicists, experts in quantum mechanics and computing engineers were twiddling their thumbs. For the younger generation of newly qualified grads and PhDs, applying their expertise to finance was the obvious alternative to fighting it out for the dwindling number of jobs strictly in their fields.

To which a  letter to the editor from Charles Beichman, executive director of the NASA ExoPlanet Science Institute at Caltech, adds:

With the loss of trillions of dollars throughout the world economy, how much safer we all would have been if Congress had just paid the ransom over a decade ago and kept all those physicists safe in their laboratory at the Waxahachie, Texas, site of the SSC. So, please, listen carefully when I say that we have one or two major space telescopes that need funding. Otherwise I might consider moving to Wall Street.

Gloomy markets, whatever they do to start-ups, are evidently golden for stand-up.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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