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Beautiful Minds

Alumnus and professor receive Nobel honors
March 13, 2006

The MIT community added two more Nobel laureates to its ranks this fall. On December 10, economist Robert Aumann, SM ‘52, PhD ‘55, was recognized for his achievements in game theory, and chemistry professor Richard Schrock was honored for his work on metathesis reactions.

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Aumann, who studied mathematics at MIT, analyzed repeated games, in which participants interact many times over a long period, and formulated precise theorems to predict their outcomes. Aumann says that long-term, repeated games tend to encourage coöperation between parties. If you operate a store, for ex­ample, you are “involved in a repeated game with a customer,” he explains. “Whereas in a one night stand–type operation you might be tempted to cheat the customer or to sell poor merchandise, this temptation is much smaller in a long-term interaction where you need to build a reputation. It’s surprising that somebody gets the Nobel Prize for this when it seems pretty obvious to most people.”

But the impact of his work has been profound. Applications of Aumann’s theory can be found throughout economics and in commerce and international relations. Although Aumann did not actively pursue game theory until after completing his doctorate, he credits conversations with fellow laureate John Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame, who was an instructor at MIT, with piquing his interest in the subject. He shares the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel with another economist.

Richard Schrock’s love of chemistry began when he was eight and opened a chemistry gift set from his brother. Little did he know that that love would eventually earn him a Nobel Prize. Schrock received the award for developing a well-defined catalyst required for metathesis reactions, in which double carbon bonds are broken and re-created in new formations such as ring-shaped molecules or long polymers. Scientists have known about this type of reaction for about 50 years, Schrock explains, “but nobody knew how it worked and therefore couldn’t control it.” Not only did the work of Schrock and fellow recipient Yves Chauvin help explain this mysterious “black box,” but it simplified the process. Schrock’s efforts and those of the third recipient, Robert Grubbs, led to the development of clean catalysts, allowing the reactions to take place in fewer steps and with fewer ingredients. Today, these reactions are widely used in the pharmaceutical industry and other industries.

A professor at MIT for 30 years, Schrock hasn’t let all the attention go to his head. “It’s not why we do science, to get prizes like this,” he says. “All of us do our work to do good science. We hope to be rewarded in other ways, but I certainly didn’t plan on it. The point was to do great science.”

Nonetheless, great work has reaped great rewards at MIT. Since 1944, MIT faculty, researchers, staff, and alumni have garnered 61 Nobel Prizes, including 12 in chemistry and 13 in economics.

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