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Un-Occupy Wall Street

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Robert’s profile.

Having now interviewed over 300 million scientists for this series, I do find it interesting how many of them knew they were scientists from birth. We’ve all heard and love the stories of the three-year-old who took apart the toaster and the toddler with the extensive dead-bird collection. But Robert Lynch wasn’t one of those guys. In fact, he wasn’t even a little bit of scientist when he was young. His first job after college was teaching English in Slovakia. And when he returned to the United States, he traded options on the American Stock Exchange… for ten years!

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How in the world does someone trading options for a living become an Evolutionary Anthropologist? Well, it turns out that it was at least partly because he was trading options that Robert made his drastic career change:

Un-Occupy Wall Street-lynch_not_on_wall_st1.jpg
Was he really laughing… on Wall Street?

“It had to do with Wall Street and crowd behavior. And I was there during the late ’90s, when you’d see stocks go from $5 to $800 in three weeks. All the time. It was the Dot Com bubble. And it was just insane. And it just didn’t seem rational. People’s behavior was fascinating, and I didn’t understand it. So I started looking into different explanations for it. And it seemed like evolution might have something to say about it.”

Soon Robert began devouring books like “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins and “Consilience” by E.O. Wilson. And he started finding answers – or at least interesting new questions – about not only the behavior he saw on Wall Street, but about deeper issues like, you know, the meaning of life:

“And then it just kind of took on a life of its own, and I just became interested in it for its own sake… just about why I was here. And I had a son around that time, which also contributed to my interest in more important things that I hadn’t considered before.”

Now Robert studies a wide range of behaviors, including laughter, in the context of evolution. He asks questions like “What’s the evolutionary benefit of laughter?” (watch his videos to learn the answer). But his journey as a scientist began when he couldn’t make sense of the antics of some folks in a certain well-trod section of Lower Manhattan.

Now I’m sure there’s got to be an equation that explains all of this. Let’s see – 99% of the one-percenters are laughing at bubbles because they think it will help them find mates. Or something like that. Then again, I think I’ll leave the research to Robert.