Atlanta nearly missed hearing acclaimed Israeli mathematician, economist and scientist Dr. Robert Aumann speak. Georgia Tech’s College of Computing originally scheduled the 88-year-old Nobel Laureate to speak to almost 300 people Jan. 29.
The snow day without snow caused school to be cancelled and put Aumann’s appearance at risk as well. But thanks to quick thinking by the College of Computing’s Dean Zvi Galil and Rabbi Shlomo and Shifra Sharfstein from Chabad at Georgia Tech, the show went on.
Galil noted that he thought the cancellation was likely a reaction to 2014’s “Snowmageddon,” and that although there was no snow, rules prevented them from holding the lecture as originally intended.
“We immediately offered to host an impromptu informal talk here at our Chabad House in conjunction with our weekly BBQ (ChabaBBQ). … Within a few short hours, we had over 40 RSVPs, mostly students as well as some faculty and alumni,” Rabbi Sharfstein said.
Aumann spoke for more than an hour about his field of expertise, game theory, taking questions from the audience at every opportunity.
When the event was rescheduled it was renamed from “Rule Rationality, A Synthesis of Behavioral and Mainstream Economics” to “Game Theory for Dummies,” and in place of his normal presentation, Aumann gave a more generalized introduction.
He drew from his own personal experience to explain how game theory is used in everyday life, and even in Talmudic discussions.
“Game theory is basically the idea that each player wants to win the most, so they may make compromises to help competition for a bigger payoff in the end,” explained Meira Robbins, a junior studying neuroscience at Georgia State University, which shares a Chabad with Tech.
Robbins never planned to attend Aumann’s lecture, but said she was glad that she heard the Nobel laureate speak. She said he discussed his field through a very personal lens, referencing when he first came to the U.S., fleeing Germany with his family in 1938.
“An amazing example he shared is when his family first emigrated to the U.S., they didn’t have much. So, cake was a rare treat. To prevent the children from fighting for the biggest piece, his mom would have one child cut the cake, and the other child would get to pick the first piece,” Robbins said.
Aumann used the example to demonstrate that even though people rarely realize it, game theory is a part of everyday decisions and learning how to use it can be a handy tool.
Because the event was in a more intimate setting, Aumann took the time to speak to students one-on-one. He wrapped up his discussion with a note about gratitude, explaining that he keeps his success in mind each day, as he thanks G-d in his morning prayers.
Tech senior Jade Marcus said that she was inspired by Aumann’s discussion with the Chabad community because he demonstrated how, at the top of his field, he could still be so devoted to his family and religion.
“[He] showed that working in the secular world doesn’t mean you have to let go of your ties to the spiritual world,” Marcus said.
Galil noted that he had received dozens of emails from people who were planning to attend, but couldn’t because of the snow day, and expressed their disappointment.
“Dr. Aumann was kind enough to say that if he was ever in the U.S. again, he would hop on a plane and give a lecture here,” Galil said.