Friday, August 17, 2012

Game Theory

The two big physics ideas of the twentieth century were relativity and quantum mechanics. By 1930 they had been unified in relativistic quantum mechanics. There was a serious problem though. Any calculations that went beyond a certain level of complexity gave infinite answers. This thorny problem was not solved until 1949, when several investigators found a way to get real (and extremely precise) numbers out of the calculations. At the time, those investigators mostly seem to have thought they had found a cute calculational trick, but subsequent history proved that what they had found was something much deeper.

That development was mostly a matter of four physicists: Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga – who shared the Nobel Prize – and Freeman Dyson, who didn’t (he was robbed, says Steven Weinberg). Dyson’s long career has since taken him many directions, including nuclear engineering, cosmology, biology, and even science fiction, to name just a few, but he is still around, and at an age when most of us will be pushing up daisies he has just added another remarkable scientific accomplishment to his collection. He and William Press have found a new class of solutions to the paradigmatic game theory icon, The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

This game, and its surprisingly broad implications for economics, biology, and human nature has been the subject of intense analysis for decades, including playing a key role in several Nobel Prizes in Economics. UPDATE: Lumo has more details than the TR article and updates