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Interview: Amartya Sen on a Bicycle

Summary:
Christina Pazzanese interviews 87 year-old Amartya Sen (Nobel ’98) for the Harvard Gazette (June 3, 2021), with an emphasis on the long arc of his life and career (‘I’ve never done work that I was not interested in. That is a very good reason to go on.’ June 3, 2021). The interview is full of interesting nuggets, like the time he co-taught a Harvard course on social choice theory with Kenneth Arrow and John Rawls. One point that caught my eye was Sen’s passion since his boyhood for bicycling:  I was a bicyclist of quite an extreme kind. I went everywhere on bicycles. Quite a lot of the research I did required me to take long bicycle trips. One of the research trips I did in 1970 was about the development of famines in India. I studied the Bengal famine of 1943, in which about 3

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Christina Pazzanese interviews 87 year-old Amartya Sen (Nobel ’98) for the Harvard Gazette (June 3, 2021), with an emphasis on the long arc of his life and career (‘I’ve never done work that I was not interested in. That is a very good reason to go on.’ June 3, 2021). The interview is full of interesting nuggets, like the time he co-taught a Harvard course on social choice theory with Kenneth Arrow and John Rawls. One point that caught my eye was Sen’s passion since his boyhood for bicycling: 

I was a bicyclist of quite an extreme kind. I went everywhere on bicycles. Quite a lot of the research I did required me to take long bicycle trips. One of the research trips I did in 1970 was about the development of famines in India. I studied the Bengal famine of 1943, in which about 3 million people died. It was clear to me it wasn’t caused by the food supply having fallen compared with earlier. It hadn’t. What we had was [a] war-related economic boom that increased the wages of some people, but not others. And those who did not have higher wages still had to face the higher price of food — in particular, rice, which is the staple food in the region. That’s how the starvation occurred. In order to do this research, I had to see what wages people were being paid for various rural economic activities. I also had to find out what the prices were of basic food in the main markets. All this required me to go to many different places and look at their records so I went all these distances on my bike.

And when I got interested in gender inequality, I studied the weights of boys and girls over their childhood. Very often, it would happen that the girls and boys were born the same weight, but by the time they were five, the boys had — in weight for age —overtaken the girls. It’s not so much that the girls were not fed well — there might have been some of that. But mainly, the hospital care and medical treatment available were rather less for girls than for boys. In order to find this out, I had to look at each family and also weigh the children to see how they were doing in terms of weight for age. These were in villages, which were often not near my town; I had to bicycle there. …

When the Nobel committee after you get your prize asks you to give two mementos or two objects connected with your work, I chose two. One was a bicycle, which was an obvious choice. And the other was a Sanskrit book of mathematics from the fifth century by Aryabhata. Both I had a lot of use for.

Also, although I do not expect to be saying anything similar about my ongoing intellectual in 2047, when I have every intention of turning 87, one cannot help but appreciate Sen’s ongoing zest for what he does. 

I’m planning to do a book on gender. There should be one in about a year or two. There are so many different problems people get confused that I thought I might put together the problems that make up gender disadvantage. It will draw on prior research, but there will be a number of new things in it. …

People have given up hope that I might retire. But I like working, I must say. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve never done, when I think about it, work that I was not interested in. That is a very good reason to go on.

I’m 87. Something I enjoy most is teaching. It may not be a natural age for teaching, I guess, but I absolutely love it. And since my students also seem not unhappy with my teaching, I think it’s a very good idea to continue doing it.

For another interview with Sen, this one from summer 2020, see “Interview with Amartya Sen: 
Economics with a Moral Compass?”
 (August 5, 2020). 

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