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Dining With Nobel Laureate Franco Modigliani

A serendipitous night of great food, conversation, and economists

By John Tasoff

“The following people were selected from the Franco lottery,” the e-mail read. I scanned the list for my name. It seemed that I, along with nine other Course XIV (Economics) undergraduates, would be having dinner with MIT’s very own world famous, Nobel Prize winning, Franco Modigliani! I was quite excited, but I hardly had any idea of what was to come.

I arrived that fateful evening (Thursday, March 20) at Casablanca in Harvard Square. But first, I spent the afternoon doing a little research on the man I was to meet so that I wouldn’t look like a dope. According to the official Nobel Foundation’s Web site, Franco Modigliani won “for his pioneering analyses of saving and of financial markets.” Given that I knew nothing about finance, I really had little clue what that meant. However, all of my Course XV (Management Science) friends assured me that he was extremely famous and that every other theory and equation in finance had his name attached -- cool!

Dinner game theory

I was the first at the restaurant. The table we reserved was long and rectangular. “Where would Franco sit?” I asked myself.

Probably in the middle on one of the sides. Thus, whoever sits in the middle of the other side would likely sit across from ‘Da Man.’ With a bit of hesitation, I went for the central seat. The rest of the students began to trickle in, shortly followed by an 80-some-year-old man with cane. Wow, so that’s him. He sat right across from me.

Nobel laureate says ‘penis’

The conversation ranged from talk of the war to religion to dirty jokes. Yes, that’s right; I heard a Nobel Laureate say “penis” in a joking context. Incredible, simply incredible. The dinner was amazing, I couldn’t ask for more...

A man from another table got up and approached us. He turned to Professor Modigliani, “May I have your autograph? Sorry to interrupt, folks,” he joked. Modigliani and the man began to chat as if they were colleagues. I figured that this guy must be some economics professor at Harvard.

Jeff, sitting at my right, leaned over and whispered, “Do you know who that is? That’s Robert Merton, he won the Nobel Prize in 1997!”

Holy crap! Two Nobel Laureates in Economics in the same restaurant at the same time on a Thursday evening by sheer coincidence. Unreal. Remember, there are only about 29 of these guys alive in the whole world. I busted out my camera and began to take snapshots as if these guys were the last of an endangered species.

Robert Merton left and the conversation continued. Shocked expressions were passed around the table. Wow! What are the chances? What a dinner! The chance to meet two, count ’em, two, Nobel Laureates at one time. The dinner was amazing, I couldn’t ask for more ...

Again, a man from another table got up and walked on over to us. The man leaned over to talk to Franco. Franco was very popular this evening. Furious whispering erupted amongst the students around the table. Who was this guy? Another professor? Finally someone recognized him. “That’s Amartya Sen, he won the Nobel Prize in Economics too!”

Three out of 29 Nobel laureates...

This was surreal. At that point in time every quark had the same spin -- the universe nearly collapsed! I felt like I took a step out of reality and entered a dimension not only of sight and sound but of Nobel Laureates. There was a sign post up ahead, it said the Twilight Zone.

Naturally, I busted out my camera and snapped off a few quick shots. Ellen E. Kim ’03 and Rashmi D. Melgiri ’03 asked if we could have a group picture with Franco and Amartya, and we did.

As Amartya Sen left, we asked Franco if this was some sort of secret hangout for Nobel Laureates. He just shrugged his shoulders.

It was an exciting night to say the least. Thank goodness for that Undergraduate Economics Association lottery. Before we all left and went our separate ways someone asked Franco, “As one of the greatest economists of the twentieth century, do you have any advice to give to us budding young economists?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Do what you like.”

“People don’t have great ideas, great ideas find people,” said.