Postscript: Paul Samuelson

by John Cassidy
from The New Yorker

In the fall of 1996, I arranged to interview Paul Samuelson in his office at M.I.T. for an article I was writing on the state of economics, which is available online to subscribers. At the allotted time, 12:00 if I remember rightly, there was no sign of Samuelson, who was then eighty-one. A few minutes went by. Then he bounced in on the soles of his feet, a diminutive man dressed in a light gray suit, a red-and-white-striped shirt, and a snazzy bow tie. He had gray, frizzy hair, shaggy eyebrows, and a wicked smile. His usual parking space had been occupied, he shouted to his secretary, so he had been forced to park in somebody else’s. “I hope it’s Franco’s. He’s out of town.” (Franco was Franco Modigliani, a fellow M.I.T. Nobel Laureate, who died in 2003.)

Befitting a scholar of his stature, Samuelson had a big airy office that overlooked the Charles River. Books and journals lined the walls and floors, but Samuelson’s desk was neat. On the blackboard, there was a note of congratulations from his colleagues for winning the “National Medal of Science,” which he had received at the White House earlier that year. Samuelson joined M.I.T.’s faculty in 1940. He wrote more than four hundred journal articles, numerous monographs and a famous undergraduate textbook, which, he proudly informed me, had sold “three million or four million copies—I can’t remember which.” When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1970, the citation read: “By his contributions, Samuelson has done more than any other contemporary economist to raise the level of scientific analysis in economic theory.” Almost forty years later, few would quibble with that description. more

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