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October 10, 2005 Does Today’s Nobel Prize Winner Believe in the Bible Code?

Today, Robert Aumann and Thomas Schelling won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Although they haven’t worked together, they’ve both made pioneering contributions to the field of game theory. I’m very happy to see them get recognized for their work, although Don Luskin seems a bit upset that Paul Krugman failed to win (again).

Professor Aumann is a rather fascinating figure. He’s been a math professor at Hebrew University for the past 49 years. He was born in Germany and his family fled to the United States in 1938. Aumann later graduated from the City College, the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” and did his graduate work at MIT.

His work is prodigious, however there is one aspect of Aumann’s work that hasn’t been mentioned in any of today’s media reports, and I’m guessing, it won’t be. Aumann is deeply religious and he’s contributed to the controversial field of finding hidden codes buried in the Hebrew Torah. While this strikes most people as the realm of crackpottery and hardly the work of Nobel laureates, I should add that Professor Aumann seems to be an agnostic on the question of Bible Codes. But on the other hand (this is the economics prize after all), he has not dismissed the findings either.

Finding a code in the Bible is actually an endeavor with a very long history. Over the centuries, many rabbis have poured over the Torah trying to find hidden clues. Funny how the clues usually match up to what they want to be there. But in any event, with the advent of the computer, looking for clues has become much easier. The most-common method is to find letters spaced equal distances apart. For example, every ninth letter of Leviticus is word-for-word, the exact lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s D'yer Mak'er. OK, I made that up, but you get the point.

Here's another example:

Well, two men, Ilya Rips and Doron Witztum, used computers to search the Book of Genesis to find the names of famous rabbis and their birth dates buried—upside or backward or forward or diagonal—but equally-spaced apart. Coincidence you say? Surely, you can find anything you want if you look long enough. It's just like Nostradamus. Not so says Professor Aumann. In fact, Aumann played an important role in bringing their research to respectable peer-reviewed journals.

When Rips and Witztum made their Torah Codes discoveries, Rips described them to colleagues at The Hebrew University. One, Robert Aumann, a well known game-theorist and also an Orthodox Jew, took a particular interest in the work. He played a prominent role in bringing it to the attention of the scientific community. Being more fluent in English than Witztum and Rips, he rewrote their research report, turning it into the dry, tight, and lucid version that was later published in Statistical Science (and is reproduced in full in The Bible Code). He also arranged for Rips to give a public lecture in the Israeli Academy of Sciences, an event that caused much embarrassment and furor in the Academy. Perhaps most significantly, Aumann, also a member of the American National Academy of Sciences, attempted to have the paper published in the prestigious journal of the Academy, the PNAS. This journal will only publish a paper that is sponsored by an Academy member. Aumann was willing to sponsor the paper, and sent it for peer review to a bevy of world renowned statisticians, among them Harvard's Persi Diaconis.

The Bible Coders got a big leap when a reporter from the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, Michael Drosnin, wrote the book, The Bible Code. In it, Aumann defends the research.

The science is impeccable. Rips' results are wildly significant, beyond anything usually seen in science. I've read his material thoroughly, and the results are straightforward and clear. Statistically it is far beyond what is normally required. Rips' results are significant at least at the level of 1 in 100,000. You just don't see results like that in ordinary scientific experiments. It's very important to treat this like any other scientific experiment-very cold, very methodical. You test it, and you look at the results.

While Aumann’s doesn’t appear to be a believer, he has shown more than a passing interest in the field. It’s no small matter when the latest Nobel Prize winner sees the Bible Code as an open question.

Posted by edelfenbein at October 10, 2005 11:09 AM

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