Remembering Economist Paul Samuelson

BY Business Desk  December 14, 2009 at 11:38 AM EDT

Paul Samuelson; courtesy of MIT

Paul Solman: A few years ago, my father, the artist Joseph Solman, and I had a meal with Paul and Risha Samuelson at the house of mutual friends. My dad was in his ridiculously hardy ’90s at the time; Paul, 6 years younger — late 80s. Both had dauntingly acute memories, cutlass-sharp wits, laughed easily and often. At the end of the evening, Paul took my dad’s elbow and said, quietly and earnestly: “You give us all hope.”

That’s pretty much how anyone who ever met him probably felt about Samuelson. Not that you could ever hope to approximate his talents: He seemed to know everything, have known everyone, have read everything and remembered every last bit of it, including a remarkable amount about you. He once mentioned the “Nutmeg ballet” and the group of us working on the video project were sure he had misspoken (he was 85) and meant the Nutcracker. But no, we simply hadn’t heard of the Nutmeg Conservatory and its ballet company. Samuelson not only knew it, but assumed we did, too. The Nutcracker would have been way too obvious a reference.

No, Paul Samuelson gave you hope not because you could ever hope to match him, but hope in human being itself: the ability of at least the occasional mortal to balance profundity with common sense, mathematical genius with literary plain-spokenness, wit with wisdom. He took a little boy’s twinkling delight in such a wide variety of things and people, you couldn’t help but twinkle too.

I’ve been looking back at transcripts of interviews I did with Samuelson during the past dozen years, once again learning as I read, and cleaning them up so we can post them over the course of the week to share with you.

In the meanwhile, for a long and strong dose of Samuelson in concert, you might enjoy a panel on which he appeared just over a year ago at a Boston University conference, sharing the floor with fellow Nobel laureates in economics: lifelong friend and colleague Bob Solow and Robert Merton, one of his most famous students. Another of Samuelson’s distinguished students, finance professor Zvi Bodie introduces the session, which I then tried (at times in vain) to moderate. Just go here to watch. A warning: Watching the whole thing may take more intellectual stamina than a typical human is likely to have. Unless that person was Paul Samuelson.