Colin Camerer Named MacArthur Fellow

Colin Camerer, a behavioral economist at the California Institute of Technology whose work integrates psychology with economics experiments to understand how people behave when making decisions, has been named a MacArthur Fellow and awarded a five-year, $625,000 "no strings attached" grant. Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards the unrestricted fellowships—popularly known as "genius grants"—to individuals who have shown "exceptional creativity in their work" and "manifest promise for important future advances," according to the foundation.

The MacArthur Foundation describes Camerer as a "pioneering economist whose research challenges assumptions about human behavior in the traditional models used by economists."

"I am thrilled to be honored by the foundation," says Camerer. "Their choice recognizes the importance and promise of using psychology, and now neuroscience, to do better economics."

"Colin's MacArthur Fellowship is well deserved," says Jonathan Katz, Kay Sugahara Professor of Social Sciences and Statistics and chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences. "He helped found the now-established field of behavioral economics, showing how fundamental understanding of human psychology can help improve our models of economic behavior, and he continues this exciting work by looking at the intersection of economics and neuroscience to open up the black box of economic decision making."

Behavioral economics, Camerer explains, combines the best ideas and methods from economics, psychology, and, most recently, neuroscience, to better understand choices people make. "The brain is computing an economic number—how much you like a new restaurant, whether a football team will win, whether a person is friend or foe," he explains. "We create theories that detail this neural computation, express it in math, and then predict what people do. When we eventually understand a lot more about the neural computations, we can help treat people with disorders—they're like broken software—make neural nudges to improve decisions, help companies organize work, and much more."

A key aspect of Camerer's work is his novel application of technologies such as electroencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to economics experiments, positioning him as a leader in the emerging field of neuroeconomics. In recent work, he has used these and other instruments to probe the psychological underpinnings of financial bubble markets and Monday-morning quarterbacking (a phenomenon known as 20/20 hindsight bias) and to identify the brain regions that govern fear of the economic unknown.

Camerer already has some idea of what he'll do with the unrestricted funds. "I'll share with family, especially my sister who feeds poor people in Detroit," he says. "Then I'll push back against the science sequester by funding some really adventurous research, like replicating earlier studies—that's unglamorous and hard to fund, but it's crucial for really finding out where the science is rock solid—and then use the money as backup funding when necessary and prudent. For example, we have a grant that was highly rated by the National Science Foundation to do ongoing work on the neural basis of price bubbles, but it is in limbo due to the sequester cutbacks. So I will just start funding some of it to keep going."

Camerer received his bachelor's degree in 1976 from Johns Hopkins University; he earned his MBA in 1979 and a PhD in 1981, both from the University of Chicago. Following positions at Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago, he joined the Caltech faculty as a visiting associate in 1993 and became the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics in 1994. He has been the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics since 2008.

Camerer, who is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Econometric Society, becomes Caltech's 17th faculty member to be given a MacArthur Fellowship, joining recent awardees Sarkis Mazmanian (2012), John Dabiri (2010), and Alexei Kitaev (2008).

For more information on the 2013 MacArthur Fellows, visit the foundation website at www.macfound.org.

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Kathy Svitil
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What Causes Some to Participate in Bubble Markets?

Caltech research shows neural underpinnings of financially risky behavior

During financial bubbles, such as the one that centered around the U.S. housing market and triggered the Great Recession, some investors react differently than others. Some rush in, trying to "time" the market's rise and fall, while others play it safe and bow out. Ever wonder what accounts for such differences? New neuroeconomic research at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has found that the investors most likely to take a risk and fuel bubble markets are those with good "theory of mind" skills—those who are good at "putting themselves in others' shoes." They think the most about the motives behind prices and what other people in the market are likely to do next, but during bubble markets, that actually becomes risky behavior.

The finding is contrary to what some economists have suggested—that financial bubbles are driven by confusion or denial on the part of investors and traders.

"What we find is that the people who are most susceptible to bubbles are not just reckless traders getting caught up in a frenzy," says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech. "Instead, when there are unusual patterns in trading activity, these people are actually thinking a lot about what it means, and they're deciding to jump in."

Camerer is one of the principal investigators on a new paper describing the study and its results in the September 16 issue of the journal Neuron. The study was led by Benedetto De Martino, senior research fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, while he was a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech.

An important message from the study, De Martino says, is that it shows "when we interact with complex modern institutions, like financial markets, the same neural computational mechanisms that have been extremely advantageous in our evolutionary history can turn against us, biasing our choices with potentially catastrophic effects." Indeed, theory of mind is typically considered a beneficial skill that can help an individual navigate everything from everyday social situations to emergency scenarios.

The findings center around two regions of the brain. One, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), can be thought of as "the brain's accountant" because it encodes value. The other, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), is strongly associated with theory of mind.

In the study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor blood flow in the brains of student participants as they interacted with replayed financial market experiments. Such blood flow is considered a proxy for brain activity. Each participant was given $60 and then served as an outside observer of a series of six trading sessions involving other traders; each trading session lasted 15 periods, and after each period the dividend for the traded asset decreased by $0.24. At various points during the trial, the students were asked to imagine that they were traders and to decide whether they would want to stick with their current holdings or buy or sell shares at the going price.

In half of the sessions, trading resulted in a bubble market in which the prices ended up significantly higher than the actual, or fundamental, value of the asset being traded. In the three other sessions, prices tracked fairly well with the fundamental value, and never exceeded it.

The researchers found that the formation of bubbles was linked to increased activity in the vmPFC, that "accounting" part of the brain that processes value judgments.

Next, they investigated the question whether the people who were more susceptible to participating in, or "riding," bubbles showed heightened activity in the same brain region. The answer? Yes—those who were willing to participate in the bubble market again displayed more activity in the vmPFC.

To further investigate the theory of mind connection, the researchers asked participants to take the well-known "mind in the eyes" test. The test challenges test takers to choose the word that best describes what various people are thinking or feeling, based solely on pictures of their eyes. The researchers found that study participants who scored highest on the test, and thus discerned the correct feelings most accurately, also showed stronger links between their portfolio values and activity in the dmPFC, one of the brain regions linked to theory of mind activity.

"The way we interpret this is that these people were thinking more about what was going on in the market and wondering why people were behaving the way they were," Camerer explains. "Normally, in everyday social encounters and in specialized professions, this kind of mind reading is useful to the individual. But in these markets, when prices are going crazy, these people think, 'Wow, I think I can figure these markets out. Let me buy and sell.' And that is usually going to contribute to the bubble's momentum and also cost them money."

One of the most innovative parts of the study involved using a new mathematical formula for detecting unusual activity in the trading market. Unlike normal markets in which the mathematical distribution of the arrival of "orders" (offers to buy or sell shares) follows a somewhat steady pattern, bubble markets display restlessness—with flurries of activity followed by lulls. The researchers looked to see if any brain regions showed signs of tracking this unusual distribution of orders during bubble markets. And they found a strong association with the dmPFC and vmPFC. Heightened activity in these prefrontal regions, the team suspects, is a sign that participants are more likely to ride the bubble market, perhaps because they subconsciously believe that there are insiders with extra information operating within the market.

Another of the paper's senior authors, Peter Bossaerts, completed the work at Caltech and is now at the University of Utah. He explains: "It's group illusion. When participants see the inconsistency in order flow, they think that there are people who know better in the marketplace and they make a game out of it. In reality, however, there is nothing to be gained because nobody knows better."

The research could eventually help in the design of better social and financial interventions to avoid the formation of bubbles in financial markets, as well as methods for individual traders and brokers to manage their trading better.

The Neuron paper is titled "In the Mind of the Market: Theory of Mind Biases Value Computation During Financial Bubbles." Along with Camerer, De Martino, and Bossaerts, additional Caltech coauthors are John O'Doherty, professor of psychology, and Debajyoti Ray, a graduate student in Computation and Neural Systems. The work was supported by a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation, and the Lipper Family Foundation.

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Caltech to Offer Online Courses through edX

To expand its involvement in online learning, the California Institute of Technology will offer courses through the online education platform edX beginning this October.

The edX course platform is an online learning initiative launched in 2012 by founding partners Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Caltech's rigorous online course offerings will join those of 28 other prestigious colleges and universities in the edX platform's "xConsortium."

This new partnership with edX comes one year after Caltech offered three courses through the online learning platform Coursera in fall 2012. The Institute will now offer courses through both platforms.

"Coursera and edX have some foundational differences which are of interest to the faculty," says Cassandra Horii, director of teaching and learning programs at Caltech. Both organizations offer their courses at no cost to participating students; edX, however, operates as a nonprofit and plans to partner with only a small number of institutions, whereas Coursera—a for-profit, self-described "social entrepreneurship company"—partners with many institutions and state university systems.

The two platforms also emphasize different learning strategies, says Horii. "Coursera has a strong organizational principle built around lectures, so a lot of the interactivity is tied right into the video," she says. Though edX still enables the use of video lectures, a student can customize when he or she would like to take quizzes and use learning resources. In addition, edX allows faculty to embed a variety of learning materials—like textbook chapters, discussions, diagrams, and tables—directly into the platform's layout.

In the future, data collected from both platforms could provide valuable information about how students best learn certain material, especially in the sciences. "Caltech occupies this advanced, really rigorous scientific education space, and in general our interest in these online courses is to maintain that rigor and quality," Horii says. "So, with these learning data, we have some potential contributions to make to the general understanding of learning in this niche that we occupy."

Even before joining edX and Coursera, Caltech had already become an example in the growing trend of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Yaser Abu-Mostafa, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, developed his own MOOC on machine learning, called "Learning from Data," and offered it on YouTube and iTunes U beginning in April 2012.

Since its debut, Abu-Mostafa's MOOC has reached more than 200,000 participants, and it received mention in the NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Higher Education Edition—the latest edition of an annual report highlighting important trends in higher education. The course will be offered again in fall 2013 on iTunes U, and is now also open for enrollment in edX.

Although Caltech is now actively exploring several outlets for online learning, the Institute's commitment to educational outreach is not a recent phenomenon. In the early 1960s, Caltech physicist Richard Feynman reorganized the Institute's introductory physics course, incorporating contemporary research topics and making the course more engaging for students. His lectures were recorded and eventually incorporated into a widely popular physics book, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which has sold millions of copies in a dozen languages.

Continuing in the tradition set by Feynman, the MOOCs at Caltech seek to provide a high-quality learning environment that is rigorous but accessible. "No dumbing down of courses for popular consumption . . . no talking over people's heads either; at Caltech, we explain things well because we understand them well," adds Abu-Mostafa.

More information on Caltech's online learning opportunities is available on the Online Education website.

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Friday, October 4, 2013

Undergraduate Teaching Assistant Orientation

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Graduate TA Orientation & Teaching Conference

Psychology Influences Markets

When it comes to economics versus psychology, score one for psychology.

Economists argue that markets usually reflect rational behavior—that is, the dominant players in a market, such as the hedge-fund managers who make billions of dollars' worth of trades, almost always make well-informed and objective decisions. Psychologists, on the other hand, say that markets are not immune from human irrationality, whether that irrationality is due to optimism, fear, greed, or other forces.

Now, a new analysis published the week of July 1 in the online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) supports the latter case, showing that markets are indeed susceptible to psychological phenomena. "There's this tug-of-war between economics and psychology, and in this round, psychology wins," says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the corresponding author of the paper.

Indeed, it is difficult to claim that markets are immune to apparent irrationality in human behavior. "The recent financial crisis really has shaken a lot of people's faith," Camerer says. Despite the faith of many that markets would organize allocations of capital in ways that are efficient, he notes, the government still had to bail out banks, and millions of people lost their homes.

In their analysis, the researchers studied an effect called partition dependence, in which breaking down—or partitioning—the possible outcomes of an event in great detail makes people think that those outcomes are more likely to happen. The reason, psychologists say, is that providing specific scenarios makes them more explicit in people's minds. "Whatever we're thinking about, seems more likely," Camerer explains.

For example, if you are asked to predict the next presidential election, you may say that a Democrat has a 50/50 chance of winning and a Republican has a 50/50 chance of winning. But if you are asked about the odds that a particular candidate from each party might win—for example, Hillary Clinton versus Chris Christie—you are likely to envision one of them in the White House, causing you to overestimate his or her odds.

The researchers looked for this bias in a variety of prediction markets, in which people bet on future events. In these markets, participants buy and sell claims on specific outcomes, and the prices of those claims—as set by the market—reflect people's beliefs about how likely it is that each of those outcomes will happen. Say, for example, that the price for a claim that the Miami Heat will win 16 games during the NBA playoffs is $6.50 for a $10 return. That means that, in the collective judgment of the traders, Miami has a 65 percent chance of winning 16 games.

The researchers created two prediction markets via laboratory experiments and studied two others in the real world. In one lab experiment, which took place in 2006, volunteers traded claims on how many games an NBA team would win during the 2006 playoffs and how many goals a team would score in the 2006 World Cup. The volunteers traded claims on 16 teams each for the NBA playoffs and the World Cup.

In the basketball case, one group of volunteers was asked to bet on whether the Miami Heat would win 4–7 playoff games, 8–11 games, or some other range. Another group was given a range of 4–11 games, which combined the two intervals offered to the first group. Then, the volunteers traded claims on each of the intervals within their respective groups. As with all prediction markets, the price of a traded claim reflected the traders' estimations of whether the total number of games won by the Heat would fall within a particular range.

Economic theory says that the first group's perceived probability of the Heat winning 4–7 games and its perceived probability of winning 8–11 games should add up to a total close to the second group's perceived probability of the team winning 4–11 games. But when they added the numbers up, the researchers found instead that the first group thought the likelihood of the team winning 4–7 or 8–11 games higher than did the second group, which was asked about the probability of them winning 4–11 games. All of this suggests that framing the possible outcomes in terms of more specific intervals caused people to think that those outcomes were more likely.

The researchers observed similar results in a second, similar lab experiment, and in two studies of natural markets—one involving a series of 153 prediction markets run by Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, and another involving long-shot horses in horse races.

People tend to bet more money on a long-shot horse, because of its higher potential payoff, and they also tend to overestimate the chance that such a horse will win. Statistically, however, a horse's chance of winning a particular race is the same regardless of how many other horses it's racing against—a horse who habitually wins just five percent of the time will continue to do so whether it is racing against fields of 5 or of 11. But when the researchers looked at horse-race data from 1992 through 2001—a total of 6.3 million starts—they found that bettors were subject to the partition bias, believing that long-shot horses had higher odds of winning when they were racing against fewer horses.

While partition dependence has been looked at in the past in specific lab experiments, it hadn't been studied in prediction markets, Camerer says. What makes this particular analysis powerful is that the researchers observed evidence for this phenomenon in a wide range of studies—short, well-controlled laboratory experiments; markets involving intelligent, well-informed traders at major financial institutions; and nine years of horse-racing data.

The title of the PNAS paper is "How psychological framing affects economic market prices in the lab and field." In addition to Camerer, the other authors are Ulrich Sonnemann and Thomas Langer at the University of Münster, Germany, and Craig Fox at UCLA. Their research was supported by the German Research Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Human Frontier Science Program.

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Marcus Woo
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Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Dabney Hall, Lounge – Dabney Hall

Free jazz demonstration and concert

Caltech Senior Wins Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Catherine Bingchan Xie, a senior bioengineering major and English minor at Caltech, has been selected to receive a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which will fund her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge for the next academic year. Xie, a Canadian citizen, is one of 51 new international recipients selected from a pool of more than 4,000 applicants based not only on intellectual ability, but also on leadership capacity and a commitment to improving the lives of others.

As a Gates Cambridge Scholar, Xie, 20, will pursue a Master of Philosophy in translational medicine and therapeutics. "The research program and the knowledge that I'm going to gain will provide me with an essential foundation for becoming a physician-scientist, translating research findings in the lab into revolutionary therapies," she says. "I'm really excited to join the Gates Cambridge community and be surrounded by people like me who want to make an impact on other people by taking on important roles and issues in society. I think the energy and enthusiasm of rising toward this common goal will be really invigorating."

Having lived in China, Australia, Canada, and the United States, Xie has been exposed to a variety of cultures—something that she says motivated her to want to become a highly involved leader in a diverse and multicultural society.

As an undergraduate student, Xie has taken full advantage of opportunities to pursue research projects in the laboratory with outstanding scientists. During her freshman year, she began working in the lab of Frances Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, engineering ways to improve the thermostability of enzymes used to make biofuels. The summer following her sophomore year, Xie joined the lab of C. Garrison Fathman, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Immunology and Rheumatology at the Stanford School of Medicine, to study a novel transcription factor regulator involved in the pathogenesis of Type I diabetes. When she returned to Caltech, she immediately joined the lab of David Baltimore, the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, where she is currently working. There, her research focuses on microRNAs—tiny snippets of RNA that are only about 20 nucleotides long—and the regulatory role they play in the development of leukemia. 

"Catherine is a student with broad interests, an engaging personal style, and great effectiveness," Baltimore says. "She has been a pleasure to have in the laboratory, and I am not surprised that she has won this prestigious scholarship and chosen to broaden her knowledge by focusing on public health issues while she is at Cambridge."

Xie says her ultimate goal in life "is to be able to not only improve our understanding of disease mechanisms, but also to be able to use that understanding to create novel, innovative therapies in order to help people battle their diseases."

Xie's desire to help others was clear during her time at Caltech—she led Caltech Y service trips, during which she and other students helped to rebuild houses for low-income families, assisted in beach and riverbed cleanups, and worked at a homeless shelter. As a freshman, she started the annual Caltech Student Health Fair to make students more aware of the physical, mental, and emotional health resources on campus and throughout the community. She has also served on campus as the vice chair of the Academics and Research Committee and as a member of the Caltech Y Student Executive Committee.

"I'm so excited that Catherine has been chosen to receive this fellowship," says Athena Castro, executive director of the Caltech Y. "I just love her. She's enthusiastic, dedicated, positive, thoughtful, and committed."

In the summer of 2012, Xie broadened her horizons even more when she traveled to Switzerland as a recipient of Caltech's SanPietro Travel Prize. "Catherine demonstrated her ability to adapt quickly and truly engage in another culture on that trip," says Lauren Stolper, director of fellowships advising and study abroad. "She will represent Caltech well as a Gates Cambridge Scholar."

Xie says she is thankful to everyone who has contributed to her experience at Caltech. "My achievements wouldn't have been possible without people giving me opportunities, encouraging me, and providing me with feedback, allowing me to grow as a scientist and as an individual," she says. "Caltech has shown me that intellectual curiosity and passion are vital driving forces behind finding innovative solutions that will have a profound and meaningful impact on solving issues that confront society."

The 51 newly announced international scholars will join 39 new American Gates Cambridge Scholars. The Gates Cambridge Scholarship program was established in 2000 through a donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the University of Cambridge. Xie is the sixth Caltech undergraduate student to receive the fellowship. 

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Monday, April 1, 2013
Center for Student Services, 3rd Floor, Brennan Conference Room – Center for Student Services

Head TA Network Kick-off Meeting & Happy Hour

For Love or Money: Marriage and Economic Development in the Past

Watson Lecture Preview

Getting married and moving out of your parents' house may be key to your personal economic development, but are marriage patterns key to an entire society's development as well? Professor of Social Science History Tracy Dennison tells us what love's got to do with it at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, January 30, 2013, in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium. Admission is free.

 

Q: What do you do?

A: I'm interested in the way societies worked in the past, and how the complex of rules that governed a society and its markets affected the decisions ordinary people make. Not just economic transactions, but where to live, when to marry, how many children to have. Whether to live with your in-laws or strike out on your own.

We imagine that the modern world after the industrial revolution is a sharp break with the past. But many things we associate with "modern" society are quite old. In England, the "nuclear" household—parents and children, no grandparents, no cousins—goes back to at least the 15th century, and people married surprisingly late. Age 25 or 26 for women and 28 for men, in a society where your life expectancy at birth was in the low 30s. But if you managed to survive childhood, you were pretty likely to get to your 50s or 60s.

Since England and the Netherlands, which also had late marriage and nuclear-family households, were economically precocious, many people think those places had some set of virtuous cultural norms that translated into rapidly developing economies. But when we look more closely, we find that other parts of Europe had that same marriage pattern and no economic growth. So the marriage pattern is not a silver bullet.

Instead, family patterns fit into larger social and economic structures. In a society with more economic opportunities, people are less dependent on their kin. A maiden aunt in England could earn a living on her own as a wage laborer and have an independent household. But in a place like Russia the family played a much larger role in providing for her welfare because landlords, communes, and guilds constrained her participation in the economy. Not surprisingly, larger, multigenerational families were more common in premodern Russia.

 

Q: How do you discover this sort of thing?

A: I do most of my research in Russia, where serfdom didn't end until 1861. Every landlord ran his estate as he saw fit, and that included running the villages on his land. The rules and regulations differed from estate to estate, so there's a lot to compare. And they kept really, really detailed records—I mean, really detailed records. We know what people's occupations were, whether they paid their taxes punctually, and whether there were any conflicts with other members of the society. I work with censuses and land surveys, petitions to the landlord, and various reports from the estate management. There was even a court system of sorts, so there are transcripts in which you hear the peasants' own voices. There was usually a literate peasant who worked as a scribe. Usually the estate's bailiff was chosen from among the peasantry, and that person would have been literate as well.

The back rooms of the regional archives are filled with bundles of papers. It's often old, acidic paper that crumbles in your hands when you touch it, but if the archivist determines that the document's in decent shape, you can take it out to the reading room. Then you try to decipher the handwriting, which changes quite a bit from generation to generation. And because the region was so poor, they often reused the paper, and there's writing on top of writing—two sets of script, and you have to figure out which one's newer by the style of the handwriting. Trying to read the one underneath is pretty exciting.

 

Q: How did you get into this line of work?

A: I came to it in a roundabout way. I did Russian literature as an undergraduate, and I went to Russia with the idea that if I was going to be a graduate student in literature I had to learn Russian properly. But I was so struck by the society itself—why it was the way it was, and how it got there—that I got interested in history.

The past is not a foreign country. People then were very much like us—they worked, they socialized, they fell in love, they got married, they had children. They just had to do these things in much harsher conditions. You can look at what seems to us like very odd behavior and say, "Wow, they had weird ideas." We look more closely and say, "Oh. They're marrying young and staying home because of the very harsh penalties for not doing so. It's not because they loved having kids while living with all their relatives." If they're farming with really primitive tools, we can see this as a response to the cost of adopting new technology, or to the policy of a landlord who confiscates any surplus you produce. It wasn't a lack of interest or creativity; in fact, people were pretty creative at improving their lives.

There is this impression of ordinary people in the past—not the kings and queens, not the rich people—that they prayed, they accepted their lot, they were fatalistic. That is not what we see. We see people struggling against the constraints of their world all the time.

 

Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech's iTunes U site.

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