A lively account of physicists in finance.
A young physicist and contributor to Slate and Scientific American, Weatherall (Logic and Philosophy of Science/Univ. of California, Irvine) was puzzled when experts began blaming the 2008 economic collapse on physicists who created complex financial instruments for Wall Street. He wondered: What do physicists have to do with the economy? The author explains how physicists have been predicting the unpredictable on Wall Street for 30 years, accounting for such hedge-fund successes as Jim Simons’ Renaissance Technologies, whose staff, loaded with physics and math doctorates, produced a remarkable 2,478.6 percent return in the decade from 1988 to 1998. The story begins in 19th-century Paris with Louis Bachelier, an aspiring young physicist who worked at the Bourse and viewed trading as an elaborate game of chance. In his dissertation, he explained how probability theory could be used to understand financial markets. “In a just world, Bachelier would be to finance what Newton is to physics,” writes Weatherall. Bachelier was dismissed as a fringe figure in his lifetime, only to be rediscovered and championed years later by economist Paul Samuelson. Others trained in physics, including Maury Osborne of the U.S. Naval Research Lab, and Benoit Mandelbrot, who studied cotton markets, further refined the idea that markets can be understood in terms of a random walk. In a series of bright portraits, Weatherall describes the many subsequent figures who spurred the further evolution of financial modeling, including Edward Thorp, who developed a winning system for blackjack in 1960s Las Vegas and went on to invent the modern hedge fund; party-going wild man and Bell Labs scientist John Kelly Jr., who applied information theory to gambling; and the anti-establishment yippies Doyne Farmer and Norman Packard, who built their Prediction Company using tools developed to anticipate how a turbulent fluid would behave in a narrow pipe.
An enjoyable debut appropriate for both specialists and general readers.