L'enfant Terrible Emeritus: Why Economists Are Like Eskimos

Textbooks--and perhaps, uniquely, economics textbooks--are not known for their literary brilliance. Why should they be? Does math need metaphor? In college when we think about numbers we think about things derived at the opposite end of campus from the Comp. Lit. department, things that are hard and certain and not about nuance. And then we grow up, and see this is silly.  If only we had been economics majors we might have come to this conclusion earlier, as we would have no doubt read Paul Samuelson


Even if you're no longer in school but know little about the world of economics, and economists, Samuelson is someone worth knowing. And, apparently, someone worth reading. He died yesterday.

If you missed the New York Times obituary, or are daunted by its length, you can read the beautiful, brief (and equally reverent) post on Paul Krugman's blog.  Both pieces comment on Samuelson's skill not simply as a theoretician, and as a thinker, but as a writer.  As the Times put it:

[Samuelson's] speeches and his voluminous writing had a lucidity and bite not usually found in academic technicians.  He tried to give his economic pronouncements a "snap at the end," he said, "like Mark Twain."  When women began complaining about career and salary inequities, for example, he said in their defense, "Women are men without money."

The obit mentions another cool Samuelson quip: "Economists are said to disagree too much but in ways that are too much alike: if eight sleep in the same bed, you can be sure that, like Eskimos, when they turn over, they'll all turn over together." The image is is striking because it is clear--and a bit absurd. We see the Eskimos. We see them rolling over. We concede the point as we embrace the humor. And then we remember. Math, metaphor.

This inclination toward wit is an elegant echo of Samuelson's hero, John Maynard Keynes.  "Hero" may not be the best word but to a layperson, it's apt.  Samuelson fought for what Keynes believed, which shows that communication does not necessarily insure success in argument--or policy.  Keynes was an excellent communicator, too.  And witty. ("In the long run, we're all dead.")

Samuelson was a model (or rival) for a generation of our finest economists.  He had the Nobel. He tutored Kennedy. He created what we think about when we think about M.I.T.'s mystique today. Yet, according to the Times, he was deeply humble.  While his nephew, Larry Summers, also possesses a unique and necessary brilliance, it is doubtful Summers ever said to his students--as Samuelson did, "[economists] have much to be humble about."  The line is a reference to Churchill's sly dig on Clement Atlee: "he is a humble man, with much to be humble about."

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
popular

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less