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James Weatherall: If Math Can't Help Solve Economic Problems—What Can?
Science | May 22, 2013

James Weatherall: If Math Can't Help Solve Economic Problems—What Can?

"The Physics of Wall Street  [by James Owen Weatherall] is a thoroughly researched history of modern physics and finance, with lucid explanations of fractals, derivatives and other esoteric topics," Scientific American writes. "It’s also a great read, filled with compelling characters, high drama and provocative ideas." In the book, Weatherall (a physicist, philosopher, mathematician, and economics speaker) transforms the traditionally held notions about financial and economic markets. He explains how understanding the relationship between physics, math, and economics can help us solve some of our toughest market problems.

"I don’t really think it’s right to say that physics can help economics, so much as to say that there has been a rich exchange of ideas between physics and economics over the last century," Weatherall says in an interview with Scientific American, "and that financial professionals could benefit from learning to think about the relationship between their mathematical models and the world in the way physicists are trained to." In the interview, he explores revolutionary innovations (also cited in his book) that have changed the principles of economics. And, as he notes, the fact that many of these came from experts outside of the economic discipline "provides some evidence of the potential for outsiders to make significant progress in economic thinking." Game theory, for example, provided new mathematical tools used for analyzing strategic scenarios—something that is particularly relevant to economists. Further, Weatherall cites how Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson's work was influenced by a 19th century physicist, and how Nobel economics laureate Jan Tinbergen (who had a PhD in physics) transferred scientific terms into economic study as evidence to support the relationship between the disciplines. Weatherall argues that cross-pollinating the fields of study can lead to great breakthroughs in understanding.

When people tell him that economics is far too complex a system to be understood through physics or mathematics, Weatherall says he is often rendered "speechless." Further: "If tools from mathematics and mathematical modeling can’t help us understand the world’s economic problems, what else do we need?" he asks. "Or is the idea that economics is simply beyond the ken of human understanding? If it’s the latter, then I guess I am just more optimistic, or at least, I don’t think we gain much by throwing in the towel." In his compelling talks and media appearances, Weatherall makes the complex world of math, science, and finance superbly comprehensible. He draws unique parallels between physics and Wall Street stock markets to show audiences how we can use new perspectives to improve economic models and get Wall Street back on its feet.
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