Friday, July 26, 2013

Sen's Arrow: A Calcutta Story

I'm in London now with the kids, enjoying a one-week holiday with family and friends before we return to New York. London is as lovely as ever, I'm immersed in a wonderful book that I should have read years ago, it's a world away from India, and I suppose I'm done with Calcutta; for a while, anyway. But as anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Calcutta knows, one is never done with Calcutta.

That last sentence will mean different things to different people. If you're not from India, it might spark a mild curiosity about Calcutta. If, instead, you are from Calcutta, that would probably signal a prelude to an extended paean to the city, that mad, idiosyncratic seat of learning, theater and the arts (in particular the Art of Extended Conversation, or the Adda)  of which little remains, except perhaps the very last of these items. Finally, if you are from India but not from Calcutta, which is to say (with some pardonable inaccuracy), if you are not a Bong, that sentence is usually a danger sign: watch out, another ex-Calcuttan is yet again poised to nostalgically wax about the waning of his once-glorious city.

No, I'll pass on all of that for now --- though one day you might need to indulge me, for if ever there was a Lost City, Calcutta is one. 

What I am thinking about, on this mild, well-behaved London morning is the essential, passionate extremism of the city. Calcutta is vehement in its idolizations (Dada), political reactions (Didi), veneration (Kobiguru), protests (Bangla bandhs) and foodiness (see, e.g., previous posts). 

And Calcutta loves a great artist: her Rays (not me!), her Jibananandas, her Shambhus and her Sukantas. But apart from all of the above, and especially from the slightly econo-centric --- and admittedly slightly envious --- point of view of an economist, Calcutta reserves some of her greatest love for Amartya Sen. (Who is in the news as we speak, thanks to a nasty and politically ill-advised tweet.)

It isn't hard to see why. Sen epitomizes intellectual Calcutta: his roots in Santiniketan and Presidency College, his extraordinary breadth of learning, his deep insights into economics and philosophy, his tremendous gift of the gab (no gab, no Calcutta love, guys) and his ascendancy to the highest Bengali pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Nope, you have it wrong, my friends, it wasn't what you think it was; it was this.

Just after that I remember being introduced to someone at a gathering: "This is Debraj Ray, a professor of economics ... Amartya Sen has actually thanked him in his book!"

Which is not to say that there wasn't room for yet more adulation and cheer when Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Sometime in December of 1998, Sen was felicitated at a gargantuan ceremony held inside a giant indoor sports stadium. It featured the entire then-Government of West Bengal, headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), an audience of more than ten thousand inside the stadium, countless thousands outside, and millions more (like me) watching the proceedings live on television. A facade of Calcutta's Town Hall had been erected inside the Stadium, a nod and a connection to Tagore's reception in Calcutta, many decades ago, on a similar occasion.  It was something else, man.

And now came for me the climax of the evening. The Finance Minister of West Bengal, Ashim Das Gupta, rose to address the assembled masses. He was an economist, too (a student of Robert Solow unless I'm mistaken), and he was fired up. I wish I could recount here for you not just the speech in Bengali, but also the very sound of it, the booming echo of the microphone fading into the far distance...

FRIENDS!...(friends, ..ends..)

the cadences of the Indian politician's speech...

WE ARE ... ALL ... GATHERED ... HERE TODAY (day...ay...)

and the accompanying roar of the audience, a somewhat muted version of what it sounded like when Tendulkar walked out at number 4 to bat.

At any rate, the Finance Minister was all fired up as I said, and warmed thoroughly to his task. He was, he said, going to explain what Sen had won the Prize for, and to do that, he thundered:


(Some months later, when I told Arrow this story, he could not quite believe it. I don't think his research had ever received this much publicity in one go.)


Upon which he proceeded to enumerate the axioms of the Arrow impossiblility theorem:

RULE ONE! NO MAN ... SHALL BE ... A DICTATOR! (tor..or...)

Remember, this was the Communist Party in power. The audience was on its feet. Tumultuous applause issued from within the stadium, and outside, where megaphones had been installed.

Or perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but that is what remembering means. It was great! And it went on in this extraordinary fashion, entirely fit for a scene out of Fellini's Amarcord, so much so that a bartender at Calcutta airport asked me the next day (on hearing I was an economist), "arrey dada, what exactly is this 'independence of irrelevant alternatives'...?" 

Oh, Calcutta.

I remember all this especially because this time around, I heard Sen deliver the Dipak Banerjee Memorial Lecture at Presidency University. I had given the same lecture --- in the memory of my great teacher --- a few years ago, to a polite, interested audience of professors and students; maybe 50 of them. This time Sen was speaking in the Derozio auditorium, and there were thousands in the audience. The press was there, and so were Innumerable students and professors. There were well-wishers, groupies, and the simply curious. There were people of all descriptions, and best of all there were the mashimas and pishimas of intellectual Calcutta, all there to listen to one of the great figures of our age. And he spoke, but what about? Well, mostly, the continuity of the lexicographic ordering --- a subject on which Professor Banerjee had written many years ago ---  but it did not prevent Sen from spinning his magic, and the audience sat and listened quietly, enraptured all over again.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Internet prawn, revisited

Prawns in coconut milk, or, Chingri machher malai curry

(To feed four as a main dish)

Disclaimer. This, my friends, is a classic. There are several fine recipes freely available on the internet. My take on this is that I dispense with cumin and I replace ground coriander by fresh green coriander at the cooking stage. And I indulge my ongoing obsession with ginger and green chillies. So it's not classical, but hopefully it will taste good. 

Prawn versus prawn. Though this whole business of "tasting good" warrants more serious investigation. I have cooked this dish in exactly the same way in both New York and in Calcutta. It just tastes different in the two places, and I have to say that it tastes quite a bit better in Calcutta. A seasoned cook will probably know why, and if so please comment here to your heart's content, but imho it has to be the prawn.

(There is also some positive probability that it could be the coconut. In Kolkata, I've used fresh white coconut for the cream; I've never done this in the United States. So my controls are not perfect, but that said, let me pursue the prawn hypothesis some more.)

Look: I'm not an expert on prawns. But the Bengali prawn certainly looks and tastes different. Sometimes they taste like crayfish. They are actively farmed, even the two kingly varieties both native to the region: the giant tiger shrimp Penaeus monodon, a.k.a. the bagda chingri, and the giant prawn Macrobrachium rosenbergii, or the galda chingri. Both the bagda and galda are large-headed, extremely succulent prawns. They are also quite expensive, but there is little doubt that both are to the malai born.

Etymology. Speaking of malai: There is also an interesting, unintended pun in the word as used here. It means "cream" in several Indian languages, but not coconut cream. It's cream from standard milk. But malai is also a distortion of "Malay" or "of Malaysia." This particular take appears to be the winner, as cooking in coconut is certainly characteristic of many Malaysian dishes.  This most classical of Bengali dishes is actually "Prawn Curry a la Malaysia". Chew on that (as you undoubtedly will if you cook up the recipe below).


A half-kilogram of shelled, deveined prawns, ideally with heads and tails intact

(picture on the left is evidently not ideal but that's all I had access to)

turmeric and salt to coat the prawns with

2-3 tbps of mustard oil

garam masala components: 

(a) green cardamom, 4-5 
(b) large-ish stick of cinnamon
(c) 2 large bay leaves 
(d) 3-4 whole cloves

other stuff:

one cup onion paste
1 healthy tbsp of ginger paste
1 tsp of garlic paste
1 tsp sugar

A bunch of fresh green coriander. Thoroughly wash and clean the roots and then chop them finely along with a handful of the leaves. Save the rest of the leaves for garnishing at the end.

Green chillies to taste, finely chopped. (Many Bengalis like to slice these lengthwise and introduce them whole into the curry.)

A 14 fl. oz. can of really creamy coconut milk, and last but not least:

A mother who likes to spoil you, preferably this one who can cook and chat at the same time:


Hendricks gin and tonic

(All right, all right Ariel, you are hereby permitted to substitute your instant coffee for Hendricks. My gurus are given certain exemptions.)

ProcedureAs my son might ask when he was all of three: Weady?

Heat up the mustard oil.

Throw in the prawns and fry them. After they are done, set aside.

In the same oil, which should obviously be piping hot be now, throw in the garam masala, listen to the satisfying pit-pit, stir a few seconds to get the cardamom to swell up, and then chuck in the onion paste. 

This you need to stir-fry this for a while, drawing the oil out and making sure that the onion is well and truly cooked. My sister Reena has tips on this: "add a pinch of salt which makes the onions sweat and release water, making it cook faster and brown nicely." 

Next, the ginger, garlic, sugar, the coriander roots and the green chillies. Stir away, until the whole thing forms a nice, mushy object.

Then add the shrimp again, which should now be lovingly coated with the aforementioned mushy paste. After a bit of coating, pour in the coconut milk, cover and cook for five minutes. You can conserve the creamy layer of the coconut milk for mixing in right at the end.

Garnish with loosely chopped coriander leaves. Done!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Internet Prawn

Here is why the world (or at least that part of the world inhabited by my friends, relatives and good acquaintances) is completely mad: 

there is a large demand for prawns cooked in coconut milk. 

That demand cannot be supplied in the next 12 hours as I am wending my weary way, armed with mother, son and daughter, to the UK. But it will, my friends, it will, at least in the Form of a Recipe. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bangla Tortilla Española

My last evening in Kolkata, at least until I'm back next, and despite the heat and humidity and the divebombing mosquitos, I'm sorry to go. Oddly enough, so are my New Yorker kids, who love the --- you guessed it --- food. My mother went into a frenzy of last-minute culinary magic and emerged with that old chestnut: prawns cooked in coconut milk. Superb. For India hands this is a common enough dish but just in case Julian B. tunes in --- or anyone else who wishes to transform the art of Western prawn cooking, I'm going to blog the recipe in my next post.

But Ma wanted a Spanish omelette for brunch, so I had to dip into my own relatively meagre resources. Out came the: 

Bangla Tortilla Española
(a.k.a. bengali spanish omelette)
This seemingly innocuous recipe involves some serious physical gyrations in preparation.

1. I wrote this for a recipe book when my friends Garance and Shub got married. Reposted here with minor updates.

2. I took a cooking class in Barcelona. But the classical version (to the extent that a Catalan version can be classically Spanish, which may be limited given recent events) is nowhere as good.

To feed 3-4, unless you'e feeding my son Riyaaz, in which case it might only feed one.

6 large eggs
3 small thin-skinned potatoes (more remarks on quantity below)
2-3 spring onions, v. finely chopped (If you're oniony, like me, I would add a small piece of finely-chopped red onion to that mix)
3/4 inch cube of ginger, finely chopped (don’t use paste, I just did and kind of regretted it)
Two ripe tomatos, chopped
Hari-mirch (green chillies), quantity personalized, finely chopped
Equivalent of 3-4 pre-packed slices of any neutral, melty cheese
Grated hard cheese, Parmesan will do fine
A proper handful of fresh coriander (objection from Julian B, but we must carry on)
Two fresh basil leaves (optional)
Salt and pepper
Olive oil (not extra-virgin, as my Barcelona cooking class emphasized), or butter. The Spaniard cries out for olive oil, the Bangali for butter or even ghee! It is all up to you.

Other Requirements:
A large, substantial, thick shallow pan
A plate that fits snugly upside down over the pan
Bloody Mary (already consumed in part before starting on this venture). I used Laphroaig today.
Oven mitts (no oven mitts here, but I used a well-worn kitchen jharan).
Kitchen cleaner and/or luck.

Yeggs at the ready! Beat 'em up, add salt and pepper.   No need to peel potatoes if they're thin-skinned. Slice them in very fine cross-sections.  Put a few tablespoons of olive oil so that bottom of pan is uniformly coated, heat pan to medium.

Once the pan heats up place the potato slices in the oil, tiling the pan completely (this may need a bit less or more than 3 potatoes depending on size).
You might think about interesting tiling theorems with discs as you are doing this, but if I were you (and certainly given I am me) I would concentrate on the task at hand.

On top sprinkle the onions, and hari-mirch and the optional basil leaves (chopped), and then the ginger. Do not entirely fry potatoes or onions, get them sizzling for a couple of minutes or so.   Then gently and uniformly pour some of the egg over this. Put the melty cheese in (I usually cut this up in small pieces and strew all over pan) as well as the chopped tomato.  Then the rest of the egg over that (the reason for having egg on top rather than cheese is because the tortilla must be turned over; see below; I get the heebie-jeebies even writing this).

Now this is the hard part. The damn thing must cook above and below but it is thick, and hard to turn over.   On the other hand if you don’t turn it over the potatoes will burn. So what you do is cook it for a while (covered if needed) until you can move the pan and have the entire omelette wobble in it. The top will still be uncooked (if it is cooked, I'm guessing the bottom is burnt).

Then (and here you must take a large swig of what's left of the Bloody Mary / Laphroaig and if you are married and male, remove spouse from kitchen) cover the pan with the snug plate, put on the oven mitts, and turn the whole contraption over until the omelette is on the plate.  Or at least, try turning it.  Do not forget the oven mitts as you will have to grab the bottom of the pan. Exhortations such as Allah ho AkbarJoy Ma Kali or milder (Hare Krishna!) or even secular variants, such as Bande Mataram, are useful here. Indeed, I encourage them.

You should have a delicious golden tortilla on the top but remember the bottom is still cheesy and gooey and at this point you should put the pan back, pick up the plate, and slide the omelette back into the pan.

 Congratulations! You are done after another 30 seconds (keep it soft inside).

Grate the hard cheese, smother the whole thing with chopped fresh coriander, and you have a  bangla tortilla española in your hot little hands. What is really Bengali about this? A lot (and not least the cooking method), but ultimately it’s the ginger.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

O Meu Portugal (and a Little Horseplay)

There are some things I must do when I visit Kolkata in the summer. Most of them are food-related, as you may have noticed in a couple of earlier postings. There are other little pilgrimages that are usually made, such as a trip to Presidency College (now known rather more grandly as Presidency University) or a visit to Coffee House. Or to the OlyPub. I could, of course, write about each of these, and one day I probably will. 

But there are also onerous tasks. I am currently engaged in one such activity, which is the filling-out of my mother's income tax return.

My mother's return is filed on form ITR-2, available here just in case you are planning on filing a return to the Indian government and are one of those "Individuals and HUFs not having Income from Business or Profession". What's that? What's an HUF, you ask? You are not told, because India is the land of acronymic ecstasy, and acronyms lose their ecstatic charge if expanded. (The RBI is actually quite helpful; it publishes its commonly used acronyms. Here is a more comprehensive Indian list.)

Anyway, as my mother is part of a HUF, I settled down with the drudgery of the 2013 version of ITR-2, to be greeted by this interesting query:
Hmm, interesting. I turned to ITR-2 for 2012. No sign of the Portuguese civil code last year:

Well, well, well. As many of my readers will know, India is directed by its Constitution to move towards a Uniform Civil Code. But it's been 65 years and we don't have one, and some very contentious things have happened around the fact that (for instance) Hindus and Muslims can be married under different Laws. But the Goa Civil Code, based on the Portuguese Civil Code of 1867, is different, in that it takes no notice of religion, and it in matters of property and asset ownership, it is absolutely equal in terms of gender. For instance, under the Law of Community Property which kicks in as a default under the Goa Civil Code in case no express marital contract has been made, "each spouse automatically acquires joint ownership of all assets already in their possession as well as those due to them by inheritance" (see this article by Margaret Mascarenhas for more details).

Nice. Why it made the 2013 form I don't know. (Maybe someone sued.) Is it a retrograde step? Literally viewed, maybe: after all, we've been enjoined to move towards a Uniform Civil Code, not away from it. But I like it. Any resident of Goa can use it. (And Goa is wonderful.) And India's chimerical uniform civil code would do well to universally adopt this default. That little question places one of India's most important civil codes explicitly on the map.

That isn't all I have to say about ITR-2. Like water from a stone, one can wring little trickles of amusement from this rather forbidding object. If one plods on to Section 4, Income from other sources, one will be amply rewarded by a rather odd partition of the income space: 

Take a look at item (c). Somehow, the activity of "owning and maintaining racehorses" gets separate mention in a principal income tax form of the Government of India! It is as if roulette wheels were explicitly flagged as an income category, or making peanut butter, or winnings from crossword puzzles (wait a minute, winnings from crossword puzzles are flagged; see item b!)

I will leave you there, but I cannot bear to do so without a glimpse into just why horses occupy a separate income category in the august eyes of the Indian Tax Code. One will need to open up Section 74A of the Income Tax Act of the Government of India, 1995, to be greeted with this mysterious lack of fungibility in loss-deductions:

"In the case of an assessee being the owner of horses maintained by him for running in horse races (such horses being hereafter in this sub-section referred to as race horses), the amount of loss incurred by the assessee in the activity of owning and maintaining race horses in any assessment year shall not be set off against income, if any, from any source other than the activity of owning and maintaining race horses..."

If you think this is the product of some mad bureaucrat who fell off a pony in Darjeeling as a child and is now wreaking his revenge, you're probably right. But this weapon has been deployed, causing a fair amount of havoc; see, for instance, the matter of the State versus M.A. Chidambaram, 1985.

Epic stuff. It brings to mind the eternal gem of Naomi Royde-Smith:

I know two things about the horse 
And one of them is rather coarse.

Clearly, I have now the very knowledge that Naomi so delicately sought to avoid. After all, if there are just four categories in "Income from other sources," each of them must be "rather coarse".

Friday, July 19, 2013

An Empire-ical Theorem

Last fall, I spent seven weeks in Abu Dhabi, teaching a course, eating Marie biscuits, looking for British adapters for my US plug points, staring at the desert, and thinking that the Brits had really been around the block. That thought came back to me a week ago when I was visiting Sydney: "The sun never sets over the British Empire." 

Actually, the phrase was used to refer to Spanish and Portuguese colonization:"el imperio en el que nunca se pone el sol." Of course, in the case of Spain we may replace "se pone" by "se puso" without fear of error, but what about the Brits? Should I employ the past tense?

It has been argued (not unconvincingly, in my opinion) that the sun never set over the British empire because the British empire was in the east and the sun, as we all know, sets in the west. (This argument bears some superficial similarity to the proof of the assertion that Alexander the Great had an infinite number of limbs; see Theorem 2 here, but I digress.) The British claim the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean (Mauritius disputes this), a matter to which we return below; might the above proof then not be employed still? It turns out, though, that a more comprehensive though admittedly less elegant argument is available.

To this end, I introduce to you my good friend and former Stanford colleague Peter J. Hammond, now at the University of Warwick. Peter's notes were written on the eve of the handover of Hong Kong to China: the end of Empire as widely acknowledged. But the world had not reckoned with Peter.

Sun Sinking over British Empire

by Peter J. Hammond  

"The sun never sets over the British Empire." Or at least it has not since the Victorian era. But is it about to? On 1st July 1997, when Hong Kong ceases to be a U.K. Dependent Territory and becomes part of the People's Republic of China? In December 1997, when it gets very dark in Britain? Or in June 1998, when the sun is at its lowest over scattered Dependent Territories in the southern hemisphere? Or never in the foreseeable future?

These days, with empires clearly politically incorrect, the "British Empire" presumably consists of the U.K. and its "Dependent Territories" (including Hong Kong until 30th June 1997). These territories abound in the longitudes between the Greenwich Meridian and 90 degrees west, with the U.K. itself, Gibraltar, Bermuda, numerous Caribbean islands, Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia --- some of these are even dependencies of some others!) So Hong Kong, at 22 deg. N. and 114 deg. E., certainly helped to fill the gap. (This and other geographical data are taken from the Times Atlas of the World, 6th Comprehensive Edition, 1980.)

However, one should not overlook:

(i) the Pitcairn Islands Group (25 deg. S., 130 deg. W.) in the Eastern Pacific, which was settled by mutineers from HMS Bounty;

(ii) the British Indian Ocean Territory, otherwise known as the Chagos Archipelago, including the Diego Garcia military base at 7 deg. S., 72 deg. E. 

Given the location of these two in the southern hemisphere, the sun is clearly at its lowest over the British Empire (and may even set) around 02:00 hours GMT each 21st June, when it is overhead at 23.45 deg. N. and about 150 deg. E. So, on midwinter's day in the southern hemisphere, does the sun set over Pitcairn before it rises over Diego Garcia? That is the question. (It is interesting that the U.K. itself seems irrelevant, and reassuring that so is the British Antarctic Territory between 20 deg. W. and 80 deg. W.)

Because Pitcairn is some way from the Equator, the question is delicate enough to require reasonably precise estimates of the time at which the sun sets at various latitudes. We use the (northern chauvinist) convention that northern latitudes are positive, southern latitudes are negative. The point where the sun is overhead on the Tropic of Cancer, whose latitude is T = 23.45 deg., is at ( cos T, 0, sin T ) in suitable Cartesian co-ordinates where the origin is the centre of the Earth, the North Pole is at (0, 0, 1), and (1, 0, 0) is the point on the Equator where it is mid-day. The point at latitude L whose longitude differs by H from that of ( cos T, 0, sin T ) is ( cos H cos L, sin H cos L, sin L ) in the same co-ordinate system. So the difference H in longitude between where the sun is overhead and where it is on the horizon (rising or setting) must solve the equation

( cos H cos L, sin H cos L, sin L ) . ( cos T, 0, sin T ) = 0   

This implies that cos H = - tan L tan T. Note that H = 90 deg. when L = 0 (at the Equator), and that there is no solution if |L| > A =  90 deg. - T = 66.55 deg. (beyond the Arctic or Antarctic circles). Furthermore, H > 90 deg. when 0 < L < Abut H < 90 deg. when 0 > L > -A.

Rough calculations suggest that S is about 87 deg. at the latitude (-7 deg.) of Diego Garcia, and that S > 75 deg. even at latitude -30 deg., well south of Pitcairn. So each 21st June the sun rises over Diego Garcia when it is overhead at 157 deg. E. (at roughly 01:32 hrs GMT), whereas it does not set over Pitcairn until it is overhead somewhere west of 155 deg. E. (after about 01:40 hrs GMT).

These calculations were then confirmed and made more precise by accessing the public service "sunrise/sunset computer" over the Internet. This can be found at the website:

Its results allow for the refraction of the sun's rays when it is close to the horizon. They indicate that, on 21st June, the sun rises over Diego Garcia at 01:22 hrs GMT, more than half an hour before it sets over Pitcairn at 01:59 hrs GMT.

Thanks to Diego Garcia (uninhabited except temporarily by various U.K. and U.S. military personnel) and to Pitcairn (population now about 50), the British Empire appears safe from sunsets for the time being. (Both these territories have websites, by the way, though that for Diego Garcia is maintained by the U.S. Navy at But the sun will be getting very low over the British Empire at around 01:40 GMT in late June each year....

Also, it seems that the sun could finally set over the British Empire if the sea level were to rise high enough because of global warming. It turns out that Diego Garcia has a mean elevation of only 4 feet above sea level, and a maximum elevation of only 22 feet. Perhaps the U.S. Navy will erect dikes around their strategically located communication facilities...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Dirac delta doesn't discount

I took this course in Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation last term; it needed some serious effort (what's i? don't ask Lacan, please) but it was a lot of fun. Umesh Vazirani was a fine lecturer as well, and in the end the whole experience sold me on online courses (at least for subjects with mathematical content; on Development Economics, my inner jury is still out). 

As I worked through the course and read some of the supplementary material, I returned to my childhood hero Richard Feynman and ran into some of his great lectures on YouTube; here's one from 1964 at Cornell. (Fellow Cornellians: observe that Uris Hall is thankfully missing from the opening sequence; it didn't exist then.)

Man, what a teacher. The greatest ever.

I was also introduced to the bra-ket notation of Paul Dirac. Elegant stuff: a perfect example of how good notation can both serve as a mnemonic and as a simplifier of tedious computations. (In economics I have also seen it change the results, but that's another, less interesting story.) 

Dirac was by all accounts one of the greatest theoretical physicists ever. He won the Nobel Prize at the age of 31 "for the discovery of new and productive forms of atomic theory". Then young Dirac headed off to the Nobel banquet and delivered the following disquisition on economics:

"[W]e have an economic system which tries to maintain an equality of value between two things, which it would be better to recognize from the beginning as of unequal value. These two things are the receipt of a single payment (say 100 crowns) and the receipt of a regular income (say 3 crowns a year) all through eternity...May I ask you to trace out for yourselves how all the obscurities become clear, if one assumes from the beginning that a regular income is worth incomparably more, in fact infinitely more, in the mathematical sense, than any single payment?" (From Dirac's biography, The Strangest Man, by Graham Farmelo. Highly recommended btw.)

Coming from a physics genius, this is quite stunning in its stupidity. The most charitable thing I can say about the bloke is that he certainly wasn't a hyperbolic discounter. (Never mind.) I find particularly telling the following observations: (a) how winning the Nobel prize appears to confer intellectual "rights" over other disciplines that one just don't have the ability to exercise, but more importantly (b) how fundamentally "intuition" differs from field to field, so that a genius in one area can be a blithering idiot in another.

My utter awe of Paul Dirac came down by a couple of notches (small notches, granted).

Postscript: the above is an updated version of some notes in Facebook that I published in 2012. A couple of the comments were very interesting and I reproduce them here:

  • Michael Chwe Of course, some physicists are great intellects, but I think our overall social awe of the field has a lot to do with the PR surrounding the atomic bomb, etc.
  • Michael Chwe Hi Debraj---you should take a look at the following paper by William Press and Freeman Dyson, both very distinguished, on the repeated prisoners' dilemma. I think that most of the paper is wrong.
  • Abhay Puri He would not be the only physicist to have struggled with economics.
    Planck is believed to have said to Keynes that he had thought of studying Economics but didn't because it was too difficult. Some might mischievously attribute this to properties of the dismal science but according to Hilbert, even physics is too difficult for physicists 
  • Debraj Ray Hi Michael, I'll definitely look at the Press-Dyson paper. But having no clue about discounting is of a different order of magnitude. By the way, I have been reading some (very basic) quantum mechanics so there is little doubt in my mind about how smart these guys are.
  • Debraj Ray Abhay, the Planck line to Keynes sounds like a polite nod from P to K! As for Hilbert, he's probably right because the short-cuts these physicists too were astounding (but in the end, apparently correct...).
  • Abhay Puri Keynes polite nod back to Planck goes: 
    "Professor Planck of Berlin, 
    Berlin, the famous originator of the Quantum Theory, once remarked to me that in early life he, had thought of studying economics, but had found it too difficult ! Professor Planck could easily master the whole corpus of mathematical economics in a few days. He did not mean that! But the amalgam of logic and intuition and the wide knowledge of facts, most of which are not precise, which is required for economic interpretation in its highest form, is, quite truly, overwhelmingly difficult for those whose gift mainly consists in the power to imagine and pursue to their furthest points the implications and prior conditions of comparatively simple facts which are known with a high degree of precision." 

    Not much of that seems right to me ... but then I'm not an economist. Or a physicist  
    But I love the phrasing anyway.

    Btw, I believe Dirac was often contentious on /any/ subject in his non-mathematical 
    expression. He's stark about poetry, too for example.