Say “Nobel Prize” to most people and they probably think about it as one of the highest honors a person can receive, for work that can be relatively hard to the average person to understand.
But ask Utah State University alumnus and Nobel Prize winner Lars Peter Hansen what he thinks about the award, and he’s surprised at what a change a largely intangible honor can make.
“It’s just stunning you wake up to this phone call and all of the sudden the world is treating you completely differently,” Hansen said during a talk on campus Thursday with students and faculty. “There’s kind of a phony aspect to it, no doubt about it. That’s unfair to a body of research that took years to do.”
Hansen was asked for his thoughts on the prize during an afternoon presentation on campus. He talked about how he got to where he is today, his advice to students and his work across disciplines combining math, economics and statistics.
In an interview, Hansen elaborated on the point he made during the talk about being treated differently since becoming a Nobel laureate.
“I go to a cocktail party, and before, I’m this boring egghead academic no one wants to talk to,” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, you’re the most interesting person in the room. I’m still the same person.”
Hansen won The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for developing a statistical model that tested the findings of two other professors, Eugene Fama of UChicago and Robert Shiller of Yale University — both of whom shared the prestigious honor with Hansen.
“What’s been really critical in my career is putting stuff together — economics, mathematics and statistics,” Hansen said. “Without these three pieces, it wouldn’t have been possible to do this kind of research.”
But before Hansen was going places with his research in the Windy City, he was an adolescent moving from place to place because his father, R. Gaurth Hansen, was an academic.
The Hansens came to Logan so the elder Hansen could work at USU. Hansen’s father was a professor who would eventually become provost. He was also briefly interim president between the administrations of Glenn Taggart and Stan Cazier.
“My move from Michigan to Utah at that age was somewhat dramatic,” Hansen said. “I had a pretty reclusive personality. I had a very serious stuttering problem, so I tried not to talk too much.”
At Logan High School, Hansen said, he “started getting some interesting grades,” including, “Double check marks, ‘does not respect of authority.’”
Hansen graduated from LHS in 1970 with mediocre grades and came to USU “not terribly inspired.”
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I had to start experimenting,” he said.
Through it all, Hansen said, his parents were patient and seemed to understand that he was struggling.
Several professors at USU became the inspiration for Hansen to do the kind of work he does today. He remembers one professor, in particular, explaining that math takes artistry to do well.
“That was kind of an eye-opener for me. I looked at math in a fundamentally different way,” he said.
Hansen graduated from USU in 1974, earning bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and political science and minoring in economics.
After graduating, Hansen went on to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he earned his doctorate in economics. He joined Chicago faculty in 1981.
For someone who came to USU not knowing what he wanted to major in, Hansen told USU students they have to find a good balance.
“It’s important to find something you have passion for that also matches your skills,” he said. “Never give up on yourself. The education system is nice in that it tolerates late bloomers.”
Jessica Wilkinson, a senior majoring in statistics, was one of several students who packed a lecture hall in the Chase Fine Arts Center to listen to Hansen.
“He made clear he’s not perfect and he made mistakes, but he learned from that and pursued passions and found success,” Wilkinson said. “That relates to me as a student — I’ve been imperfect, I’ve made mistakes, but I still move forward.”
Wilkinson said Hansen’s work as an economist inspires her.
“I love the tie he brought up between math, statistics and the economy,” she said.
On Friday, Hansen will lecture on his field of expertise to students and faculty of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business and deliver what school officials bill as a “technical workshop” later in the day.