Faculty Profile

Mathematical Economist

R. M. Goodwin was showing some of his paintings at home recently. One lady announced at the outset that she was "skeptical" of modern art. As he displayed, unabashed, a series of starkly non-objective canvases, she grew confused and silent. Then she brightened as she spotted a picture on the opposite wall: a simple drawing of a house, with a blue strip of sky at the top and a green strip of grass at the bottom. "Now that's very different," she said, relieved but yet unsure. "You have a sort of child-like style there, haven't you?" "My new did that," Goodwin told her.

Some professors of economics may share the lady's feelings, when they approach such Goodwin articles as "The Multiplier as Matrix," ("in which I generalize Keynes' 'General Theory'"), or "Secular and Cyclical Aspects of the Multiplier and Accelerator." In vain they look for things familiar in a maze of matrices, mechanisms, and differential equations. The uninitiated must turn skeptic, or search not scattered passages written, for backward readers, in English.

Art-critics and economists could agree that Goodwin's work is "original." The same applies to all his activities since undergraduate days. A member of the CRIMSON, he left to become one of the founders of a competing newspaper. As a senior, he started a rival to the Advocate, an "intellectual magazine" called the Harvard Critic. "We were far in advance of our time, I will say that for us," he recalls, speaking of the group's major project, a Kinsey-type poll of undergraduate sex-life. Aided the a professor of clinical psychology, the staff composed a carefully-worded questionnaire and had 2000 conscientious replies. The date was recorded on IBM cards, and the professor prepared to tabulate it on the University's IBM machines. At this point the Dean's Office made the students a sporting offer, one alternative being to publish the results and be expelled. Goodwin shipped the cards back home to Newcastle, Indiana.

Goodwin, who now combines economies, mathematics, and physics, studied none of these as an undergraduate. Instead, as Professor Perry Miller recalls, "He was in Government, ostensibly, but he used to do all the work for History and Lit. They could have given him two degrees." Goodwin wrote his thesis on Marxian theory, and graduated in 1934 with a degree summa cum laude and a Rhodes scholarship.

He left Oxford three years later, richer by two more degrees, a new interest economics, and a wife. Back at Harvard, he took his M.A. and Ph.D. in Economies, in which he was an instructor for two years.


In 1942 the Physics Department called for volunteers to teach Army and Navy students. This seemed his chance to gain experience in more rigorous sciences. Goodwin's background was weak--he had never had any physics or math--so he took a six-weeks refresher course before he got the job (he decided against teaching math; he didn't think he could get away with it). "It was nerve-wracking. I was one jump ahead of the class--good thing they didn't know it." He studied Physics A, while he taught Physics B. After awhile he was promoted to teach Physics A. "Then the war ended and the physicists started coming home. The Physics Department took another look at me." Goodwin headed home to economies.

He came back speaking a new language. Goodwin began to apply to economic dynamics, the study of change and growth in the economic world, the mathematical reasoning and methods of analysis he had learned in physics. He attempted for the first time to relate oscillation theory and electric-circuit analysis to the explanation of the business cycle.

"By then," Goodwin says, "I had taught myself the equivalent of an undergraduate training in physics." ("That is absolutely untrue!" says Phillipe LeCorbeiller, Professor of Applied Physics, to whom Goodwin brought his early research for criticism. "His physics was on a very high graduate level.") "I'm a Sunday mathematician," says Goodwin. "I have no aptitude for math." ("Ha!" says LeCorbeiller. "Remember, whatever Richard Goodwin tells you about himself, that is by twelve shades an understatement.")

He was no an assistant professor. Anxious to test his new theories on a class, he went before the faculty with an unusual offer: he would teach a course free, if he could choose his own subject. The result, Mathematical Business Cycle Theory, proved a little stiff for undergraduates. Starting the second year, Goodwin found himself facing a class composed entirely of auditors: among them, the world's most famous cycle theorists, Professors Haberler and Schumpeter. "From then on, the sky was the limit: no exams, no marks, it was the most fun I've ever had."

Lecturing in graduate and undergraduate courses, he began to acquire an outstanding reputation as a teacher. As several students commented, Goodwin is one of the rare lecturers who can make Emerson D seem like a seminar room Nevertheless, his position in academic life has been risky; he has chosen to pioneer in a field whose worth has yet to be demonstrated. Some economists fear that the use of mathematical symbols in a science of human behavior is a sterile departure form reality. Others, such as Goodwin and the foremost mathematical economist, Professor Samuelson of MIT, believe that theoretical models complex enough to represent reality are possible only with the aid of mathematical tools.

In some ways Goodwin's temperament handicaps him in the academic sphere; in part it explains, for example, his reluctance to produce a book. "I didn't want to write a book that wouldn't be original," Goodwin says. "When I have something new, I write a paper." But his important papers have been published only in the last two years, delayed by his stay in the Physics Department; most of them appeared after the faculty decision to reject him for permanent appointment.

Richard Murphy Goodwin is leaving Harvard at 38, having spent half his life her. Some people think the faculty made a mistake. Others point to factors that might have influenced the appointment board: his late publication his taste for working alone, his non-competitive attitude toward advancement. In particular, some professional scholars tend to feel uncasy about the man with a varsity of interests, the outstanding amateur in so many field: Can he be taken seriously! One professor, not an economist, has summed up an attitude he may not share himself: "It's all very well to be brilliant at everything: But how can you be sure of a man like that?--who might leave a job teaching economics and go off to spend all his time painting?"

Goodwin has provided one answer to that. Beyond a year at Cambridge University his plans are uncertain, but whatever he will be doing in the future will include teaching. What he most regrets on leaving is the loss of first-rate students. As for research, he has had an obligation to fulfill. Schumpeter, before his death, made Goodwin promise to finish a book before his five years as assistant professor were up. The work, on economic dynamics, was finally begun last fail; in Samuelson's opinion, "It will be a landmark." The book will be finished at Cambridge.