A Few Things You Should Know about Harry Markowitz
Harry Markowitz died recently (June 22, 2023) and while he was somewhat famous, not everyone knows who he was. That’s a shame. So, here are a few things you should know.
First, he’s most famous for creating what others call “Modern Portfolio Theory” by way of his 1952 Ph.D. thesis. He won a Nobel prize for this in 1990, 38 years later. Your retirement fund, 401(k) and other investments are all safer and better thanks to him.
By the time he was named a Nobel Laureate, he had moved on, too curious to stick with just economics, or just spend time only being a guru to investment funds. He was a polymath, an entrepreneur who confounded what is today a publicly traded company. He was interested in how to automate advanced analytics (an interest we shared). His curiosity drove him to explore new things.
This curiosity is one of the main things I remember about Harry.
I met him when giving a talk in San Diego. I didn’t know he was in the room. But someone in the back kept interrupting my talk with questions. Most of them were really excellent questions. But even good questions can break your stride. The questioner was curious and wanted to know “why,” and it was both flattering and disruptive.
At some point, I said, “The answer to the latest question will be covered later, and could you please hold your questions?”
The room went quiet. I could tell the crowd was surprised at this exchange, and as it turned out nearly everyone else in the room knew I’d just asked a Nobel Laureate to please be quiet.
This brings me to another characteristic, humility. Harry wasn’t insulted at all. In fact, he told me later it had been a long time since he’d been treated without kid gloves. He gave me his private email address and told me he’d love to exchange views.
Another trait was generosity. Harry gave away the Nobel Prize money to UC San Diego. I don’t think anyone knows all of the money he gave away, but he gave more than money. Harry gave himself. He was loyal and supportive of his friends. He dedicated himself to caring for his wife Barbra as her health failed.
I once asked him for some advice on a thorny analytics problem. Most people of his stature would have either ignored me or (correctly) pointed out the trivial little problem beneath him. But Harry quickly provided pithy, pertinent coaching. He was too generous to be self-absorbed or haughty.
His curiosity humility, generosity, and humor will be missed. The world is richer (in every sense of the word) for the time he spent among us.
There have been several obituaries written in the week since he died. One of the best is found in the newspaper of his adopted hometown, San Diego.
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