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My Foray Into Science

I grew up in a family where science played a big role. Famous scientists often came to our house to visit. My nickname at school was ‘professor’. I had to live up to it. In my fourth year as a student of the Faculty of Mechanics at Moscow State University, I drew plans for an apparatus which cooled a porous surface with air. At the time, there was no such thing as heat-resistant ceramics. I was completely engrossed in the work. The mathematics in it was complicated - partial differential equations. Based on my drawings, the apparatus was built and scientists began to conduct experiments using it. As it turned out, I wasn’t much of an experimenter at the time, but the most important thing for me was the search, the quest. Even now, I tell my students that being a scientist is like being a detective: it’s constantly solving riddles - big and small. So, if we hadn’t ended up in science, we would have turned out to be quite good criminal investigators. I eventually found out that my cooling apparatus was used at Moscow State University for ten years.

The longer I worked at HSE, the more I liked it

After university, I went to work at the Institute of Control Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences for one of my favourite teachers, Mark Eiserman. He suggested that I work in one of two areas – either optimal control or choice theory. I was taken by the latter. I understood that human behaviour could be modelled using mathematics in order to calculate individual and group decisions. There were many avenues for scientific research in this field.

How I chose my path

The Faculty of Mechanics at Moscow State provided me with an excellent education. I also frequented additional classes and lectures. I specialised in mathematics, however I will always remember the words of Karl Popper: ‘There isn’t any such thing as an area or sphere of knowledge – there are only unsolved problems and the need to solve them’. I always approached science with this very attitude: I had, in my hands, a mathematical toolkit and a bunch of problems that needed to be solved.

The principles and approaches to solving problems in different fields of science are very similar

When I arrived at the Institute of Control Sciences to work, Eiserman asked me to attend the lectures there. One of them was on biology, which I am not interested in at all. I wanted to get out of attending, but Eisermann insisted that everyone go. I am incredibly grateful that he insisted, because I found out a lot about various fields of science. The lectures helped me to understand that approaches to solving problems in different fields of science are very similar.

Mathematics and real life

I was never that interested in simple mathematical problems to be solved with ready-made models, where you only need to plug the numbers in and it spits out a result. It’s much more interesting to develop one’s own methods. Every now and then I tell this story about how, one day, I was walking around Paris with my wife and we encountered a person selling nuts on the street. At the time, they were still using francs over there. I pulled out a handful of coins from my wallet, counted out 40 francs for the nut-seller and took my few packets of nuts, at which point, the seller turned around and hurled the coins onto the road. I was completely taken aback. Forty francs, in those days, was still about 8 dollars. Was he a billionaire to squander money like that? The next day, I told the story at university and asked people, what it could have meant. Everyone told me to forget about it. But I couldn’t forget about it and I came up with a mathematical model for variants of human behaviour which are dependent on how wealthy a person is. I recorded all the evidence and published it in an article.

Here’s another real-life example. One day, I was sitting on the couch, working, and was listening to the television at the same time. I often do this. Just as long as there aren’t any good films or music playing- otherwise I start to get distracted. The best option is the news bulletin. So anyway, on this particular occasion, they announced that the water supply to houses had been turned off in the city of Podolsk. Next thing, they showed beautiful houses in the town and images of angry people. All of a sudden, I had this strange vision of myself, living as I was in St Petersburg in an apartment overlooking the Neva River, but with access to water for only 15 minutes a day. And I began to think, would 15 minutes be enough to meet my daily water needs? I jotted down a new model on a piece of paper. In the end, we got some good research out of it which was published in a top journal.

How I ended up at HSE

Having worked for a while as lab head at the Institute of Control Sciences, I left to travel abroad. Interestingly, even in my absence, my office was left untouched. It made me rather uncomfortable – there were colleagues who had to share an office with 4 others, and I wasn’t even using mine. The Director of the Institute said that he wouldn’t give my office away because he believed in my return, despite the fact that I wasn’t even sure that I was coming back. I eventually decided to return to Russia after having worked for 10 years abroad. And I remember how thrilled the director was.

However, I didn’t stay long in Moscow: I had to go on a business trip for a few months to the University of Paris I, with whom I had a very good working relationship. One day, at one of the seminars in Paris, two Russian colleagues approached me, introduced themselves as employees of the Higher School of Economics and asked if I would like to work there. I admit that I didn’t know a thing about HSE, so I agreed to give just one three-hour lecture, once a week. When I returned to Moscow, I got a phone call from HSE and they asked to meet with me. I talked to Lev Lubimov, Revold Entov and Vladimir Avtonomov for three hours and they persuaded me to head a new department. I remember walking along after the meeting, thinking, ‘why did I agree to this?’ But the longer I worked at HSE, the more I liked it.

Whatever I organized – whether it was a faculty or a laboratory – the feedback from HSE was always positive

Firstly, at HSE, there’s an atmosphere created by our close-knit team which is focused on scientific work. It’s a big deal. Unfortunately, a lot of people have never experienced something like it. Secondly, I really like my students. They’re always ready to work and want to climb the career ladder. I never considered having career ambitions as something to be ashamed of. As they say, ‘the soldier who does not dream of becoming a general is a bad soldier’. I would modify this slightly: ‘the good soldier who does not dream of becoming a general is a bad soldier’. Many of my students work at HSE and have already become professors.

The laboratories

Now I work in two laboratories - the International Laboratory of Decision Choice and Analysis, and the Laboratory for Experimental and Behavioral Economics. The former was actually founded by me. I’m very proud of it because it competes with other similar institutions on an international level. I don’t mean the Moscow level nor Russian level, but the international level, and I’m speaking honestly when I say this. Eric Maskin, Nobel Prize laureate and my good friend, is our main research assistant. Vladislav Vladimirovich Podinovsky, Boris Mirkin and Alexander Belenky also work with us and are colleagues of international calibre. As such, the laboratory has a very good reputation abroad. The Laboratory of Experimental and Behavioral Economics was founded by Alexis Belianin, and he invited me to be involved as a theorist.

Science doesn’t adhere to national borders. There isn’t any such thing as Russian science – only Russian scientists

I had no difficulties in founding the laboratory of Decision Choice and Analysis. HSE is always supportive of activities such as this; the formation of new scientific structures. Whatever I organized – whether it was a faculty or a laboratory - the feedback from HSE was always positive. This makes it easy and pleasant to work here. If you have a good idea, it won’t get lost amid bureaucratic red tape.

National borders in science and schools of science

Science doesn’t adhere to national borders. There isn’t any such thing as Russian science – only Russian scientists. The universality of science began to be recognized in the Middle Ages and Antiquity. There’s no way that Pythagoras’s theorem, for example, could be Greek. There are, of course, schools of science. A few years ago, a student of mine gave me a scientific tree for my birthday. One branch stems from Mark Eiserman, towards Felix Gantmacher and then to the Middle Ages. These trees are made using a database of names collected by the American Mathematical Society.

A school of science, according to Thomas Kuhn, is a community of people united by their desire to learn. In such communities, students deal with problems which their teachers are interested in. Of course, they can also bring in something of their own. For example, I solve scientific problems according to my way of thinking – how I see things. Then I explain this perspective to my students. This is how a school is formed. One thing I will say, is that those heading the school should have a broad view of the world.

Teaching and my first students

I’ll tell you a story. When I was in my third year of my degree at Moscow State University in functional analysis, I came up with a problem which I wasn’t able to solve – I didn’t know much at the time. Off I went to the Chair, where I ran into Boris Chabat, a very famous mathematician. None of the teachers who I knew were there. I turned around to leave but at that moment, Chabat turned to me and insisted that I enter and tell him my reason for coming. I showed him the problem. He put aside his papers and talked with me for 40 minutes about its solution. And he was busy at the time. This is why, when people say to me that I spend too much time with my students, I always answer that I am repaying a debt. Eiserman was the same. Both during and after my studies, I was lucky enough to meet many people who gave of their time to me.

The lowering in the standard of mathematical education in schools today is reflected in society as a whole

My first students at HSE were Daniel Karabekyan and Alexander Karpov. They were attending one of my extension courses. During the break, they came into my office, sat down and were silent. When I asked them what they were doing there, they answered, ‘just because’. I burst out laughing. I was probably the last person at HSE whom people came to see ‘just because’. Of course, they then explained that they wanted to do science and I gave them their first task. Time went on and now they are producing work of international standard. It’s great that such people exist.

Mathematics in Russia

The current level of mathematics in Russia is not bad. It’s a different issue that the quality of school knowledge is constantly falling. When I was studying, mechanics in Russia was the best in the world. Not anymore. There are also problems with high school education. The lowering in the standard of mathematical education in schools today is reflected in society as a whole. In everyday life, we rarely use general algebra, but it’s algebra that sets the standard that we all have to meet. It’s like Formula 1: we don’t drive race cars every day, but for car manufacturers, such machines are an important guide for the development of new models. So, if the bar drops, sooner or later we’ll face a shortage of good staff. We’re not in Saudi Arabia and won’t be able to provide the entire country with engineers, even if a large part of our income is from oil and gas. I judge this state of affairs based on the situation at HSE: in spite of the fact that the crème de la crème come here to study, the standard of high school graduates gets lower every year. This is alarming, and something must be done to change it.

Research at HSE: For School and for Life

If you look forward to seeing HSE’s development through the eyes of its first ever professors, and finding out how it turned into a leading Russian university from a modest institution, we would be glad to share this information on this website. Read, watch and have fun!

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