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Ec Professor Nabs Nobel

Game theory expert applied economic theory to Cold War policy

By Lulu Zhou, Crimson Staff Writer

A Harvard professor emeritus netted half of the Nobel Prize for economics yesterday for his research using game theory to help explain a variety of real-world issues.

Thomas C. Schelling, who is Littauer professor of political economy, emeritus, and also distinguished university professor, emeritus, at University of Maryland is sharing the $1.29 million prize with Israeli-U.S. citizen Robert J. Aumann.

The award comes days after Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Roy J. Glauber ’45-’46 won the Nobel Prize in Physics. This prize will be the 43rd Nobel awarded to a member of the Harvard faculty.

The award, officially called the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, honors Schilling “for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis,” according to a press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which gives the award.

Famous for applying game-theory analysis to the study of strategic interaction, especially during the Cold War era as the U.S. was on the brink of nuclear warfare with the Soviet Union, Schelling is for the insightful applications in his work.

“The most striking characteristic of what he did in the 1950s and ’60s was to demonstrate precisely that this somewhat arcane tool...was not just a mathematical toy but actually could help us understand the world, and also help policy makers deal with it in a more realistic way,” Stanfield Professor of International Peace Jeffry A. Frieden said.

“He helped people, including policymakers, understand what nuclear weapons meant to international politics and how they might have changed it, and how policy makers might act so as to manage international conflict,” Frieden added.

An economics professor who taught at Harvard for over 30 years, Schelling is considered one of the founding members of the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), and his portrait is displayed along the Littauer Center staircase with other famous faculty who lectured in Harvard’s classrooms.

Ramsey Professor of Political Economy Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62 noted that Schilling had an incredible presence during his time at Harvard.

“People would wait for him [at seminars], [and] at the end he would make one incredible comment always in very eloquent terms,” said Zeckhauser, who has known Schelling for 46 years as a thesis adviser, doctoral thesis adviser, colleague, and friend. “Tom Schelling was the reason that you went to Harvard.”

Zeckhauser said that Schelling has a unique ability to make conclusions after observing the most mundane events and apply them to other situations.

“He walks around the world and everything that he sees piqued his curiosity,” Zeckhauser said. “He usually develops new insights that other people would just miss.”

Among Schelling’s insights was the ability to explain the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union as a social game of shared and conflicting interests.

“His thinking in some sense infused the success that we had over a 50-year period in avoiding the nuclear war,” Zeckhauser said.

In addition to being an insightful man, Schelling is also an amicable acquaintance, said KSG Dean David T. Ellwood.

“He is also a remarkable man of personal warmth and kindness of spirit,” Ellwood said. “It couldn’t go to a wiser, more important man, but it also couldn’t go to a kinder and more generous man.”

Last year, the KSG created an award in Schelling’s name to “honor people who use reason, exceptional wisdom, and evidence to understand and solve public problems,” Ellwood said in a May press release.

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at

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