Juan Carvajalino, 2015-16 HOPE Center Fellow

We get misled by greatness, convincing ourselves that Brahms was always Brahms and Paul Samuelson was always Paul Samuelson.

But as Juan Carvajalino is discovering by working through Samuelson’s archives, even Samuelson was once just a young economist trying to find his way, a genius who nevertheless had to be mentored and made—in his case, by, among others, the American polymath Edwin Bidwell Wilson.

Wilson was the lone protégé of the great nineteenth-century American mathematician and scientist Josiah Willard Gibbs—and the mentor of Paul Samuelson.

Juan, who is a 2015-16 HOPE Center Fellow and a PhD student at the University of Quebec at Montreal, is completing a dissertation chapter on Wilson, exploring his foundational ideas about mathematics and science as well as Samuelson’s commitment to those ideas.

“Through Wilson, I’m trying to construct interconnected histories of science and a story of how mathematics and economics interacted,” says Juan.

While at Duke, Juan, who was born in Colombia and raised in Switzerland, will also begin exploring a conflict between Samuelson and the famous mathematician John von Neumann. Both can be said to be founders of modern economics.

Samuelson, who wrote Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947), and von Neumann, who, with Oskar Morgenstern, wrote Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), presented in those two books contrasting foundations for economics. Each, in its own way, became hugely influential in the subsequent evolution of the field.

“Each book used a kind of mathematics that was both different and new in social science,” Juan explains.

In order to deal with such a conflict, Juan uses Wilson as a vector. Wilson was committed to an American mathematical tradition in which intuition was as important as logical consistency. That tradition was in sharp contrast to an abstract German tradition of which von Neumann would become a worthy heir.

Juan spent a great deal of time reading histories of mathematics to gain a better context for understanding Wilson. Such an interdisciplinary approach is consistent with Wilson himself, who, through his involvement in the 1920s and 1930s with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was instrumental in bringing together for collaborative work economists, mathematicians, and statisticians.

Juan points out that he tries to follow technical matters as he has been writing his dissertation. “But when you come to actually write the thing, what matters is the story.”

Juan will return to Montreal in April.

--Paul Dudenhefer