About Utah: Q-and-A with a Nobel laureate

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23 2014 9:00 a.m. MST

Nobel laureate Lars Peter Hansen.

University of Chicago

The question: How many graduates of Utah’s public schools have won a Nobel Prize?

The answer: One, Lars Peter Hansen, a graduate of Logan High School and Utah State University, who two months ago at the Nobel’s annual ceremony in Stockholm was awarded the 2013 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics. He shared the honor — and its $1.2 million stipend — with U.S. economists Eugene Fama and Robert Shiller.

Hansen’s historic breakthrough is all the more compelling because at Logan High he was a lackluster student at best, pulling more C’s than A’s — a performance attributable, at least in part, to adjusting from moving to Utah at the start of his junior year when his father left Michigan State University to accept a position as provost at Utah State University.

The 1968 move brought R. Gaurth Hansen, Lars’s professor father, full-circle. Gaurth was born in Smithfield, Cache County, 10 miles north of Logan, as was his wife and Lars’s mother, the former Anna Lou Rees. They married in the Logan LDS Temple in 1943 and raised three boys, Roger, Ted and Lars, while Gaurth embarked on a well-traveled career in academia, getting his bachelor’s degree at Utah State, his doctorate (in biochemistry) at Wisconsin, and teaching on the faculties at the University of Utah, the University of Illinois (where Lars was born) and Michigan State before coming back home.

The Utah move returned Lars Peter to deep family roots in the Cache Valley. Of the Nobel laureate’s 16 great-great-grandparents, 14 were converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who eventually wound up in Smithfield, immigrating mostly from Denmark and southern Sweden.

After high school, Lars Peter enrolled at Utah State.

“It was the only school I applied to,” he says. “I didn’t think I had many options given my high school background.”

As an Aggie, he found his academic stride, graduating in four years with a dual major in political science and mathematics. He went on to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a doctorate in economics. After a short stint teaching at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1981. He’s been there ever since, serving in the department of economics as director of graduate studies and department chairman while carving a niche as one of America’s premiere economists in the specialized field of econometrics. His groundbreaking work “at the boundary of economics and statistics” has brought him numerous international awards and renown.

His father died in 2002, and his mother, Anna, lives in St. George. His brother Roger lives in Orem and is an environmental and civil engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation, while brother Ted lives in St. Louis, where he recently retired after a career as an immunologist at the medical school at Washington University.

Since receiving his Nobel Prize in Stockholm in December, Lars Peter has been feted by the University of Chicago, where he works, and the University of Minnesota, where he attended graduate school.

On March 7, Utah State University, where he started studying economics in his junior year, will follow suit, honoring the school’s first-ever Nobel Prize winner at its annual Founders Day celebration.

In a conversation with the Deseret News, Lars Peter, 61, talked about his days at Utah State University, his work in economics, and winning a Nobel Prize.

DN: Congratulations and thank you for talking with us. What has life been like for you since your award was announced last October?

LPH: It’s been very busy. The time between when the announcement was made and our trip to Stockholm (in December) was especially busy: lots of travel, lots of acknowledgment. All the Nobel laureates were invited to Washington, D.C., for a reception at the Swedish embassy, where I had a short meeting with President Obama. He’s almost my neighbor. His house in Chicago is about eight blocks from where we live. One of the most wonderful things for me was when a group of Ph.D students I’ve advised over the years, probably 68 of them, put together a conference in my honor just a few days before my wife and I and our son went to Stockholm. That was very special. I think they might have been happier about all this than I was.

DN: What was the ceremony like in Sweden?

LPH: In Stockholm you’re treated like a celebrity. You’re there for a week, you have your own escort (and) your own private chauffeur. I wasn’t even allowed to open the car door. But we had some bad luck there. Two hours after I gave my talk I got sick. They assigned a Nobel doctor who attended to me and I got through the week but that slowed us up a little bit. When I got back to Chicago I was diagnosed with viral pneumonia. I was very, very sick most of December. Our plans of having a nice ski break over Christmas got upended. One person described it to me as the yin and yang: win a Nobel prize, get viral pneumonia. It’s the sickest I’ve been in my whole life, but I’m feeling better now.

DN: Does the celebrity status extend to being recognized on the street?

LPH: I don’t know about that, but I’ve been congratulated more than once on winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and I was congratulated once for winning the Pulitzer Prize.

DN: If your father were alive, how do you see him reacting to your win?

LPH: Pleased, obviously, and I’d have to add he’d be particularly pleased to see a graduate of Utah State University excel academically. He spent a big chunk of his career there and was completely committed to the university.

DN: Was your mother able to attend the ceremony in Stockholm?

LPH: No. She wasn’t able to travel that far, but my mother’s neighbors (in St. George) were able to project the television broadcast live and so she saw it as it happened. One of the St. George newspapers interviewed my mom. One of the questions they asked was whether she was proud of me. She said, "I’m proud of all three of my sons.” Then they asked if this would change our relationship. She said, “No. I’m still his mother, he’s still my son.” I thought it was beautiful. She’s very proud of her entire family. Just a wonderful person. That really captures my mom.

DN: You’ve been very open in interviews about not being a stellar student at Logan High School. What do you remember about those years?

LPH: I’m what some people would call a faculty brat. I’m the son of an academic. My father was at various universities and then he became provost at Utah State when I was 16. It was culture shock for me. My two years (at Logan High) were a bit rocky, my grades were erratic, I brought home a report from one class with double check marks, “Does not respect authority.” I wasn’t a particularly happy student. My parents were incredibly patient with me. It’s important to allow for late-bloomers, and I think of myself as a late-bloomer.

DN: What changed when you got to Utah State?

LPH: Utah State admits a lot of people, but it allows you to pursue whatever you desire. You could be a lazy student at Utah State and not accomplish much or you could also find that education is special and there’s an opportunity there. It had a big influence on me. You don’t have to be this incredibly motivated high school student and get to a private school to succeed. The public school system has the ability to accomplish special things.

DN: What provided the spark for you at Utah State?

LPH: There were many professors there who influenced me in different ways. One taught me how to appreciate the value of mathematics and the beauty of it. That was professor Mike Windham, a very gifted teacher. There was another one, a European history teacher, Doug Alder, now at Southern Utah. He gave me this advice: He said, “Look at your talents, figure out what you’re really interested in and do that.” That had a big influence on me. Another professor, Bartell Jensen, designed an accelerated curriculum to get me ready for graduate school. I could list others, too. I think my worst quarter at Utah State was better than my best quarter at high school.

DN: In its press release announcing your Nobel Prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote: “Lars Peter Hansen developed a statistical method that is particularly well suited to testing rational theories of asset pricing.” Could you expand on that, please?

LPH: I think of myself as bringing together aspects of statistics, macroeconomics and finance. My research is about using mathematical models of statistical methods to formally assess and investigate financial markets as linkages to the macroeconomy.

DN: If you walked into, say, a McDonald’s, how would you describe to the people there what your Nobel Prize is for?

LPH: In simplistic terms it’s about how to do something without doing everything.

DN: How do you see your research helping the world?

LPH: At the end of the day the purpose of building better models is to provide better advice for policy makers. If you look at the financial crisis that took place (in 2008), to me that exposed knowledge gaps in existing models. The challenge going forward is how to build better models so we can be in a better position to have those models be useful.

DN: So what does an economist do with the $400,000 that comes with the Nobel Prize?

LPH: Well of course a portion of that goes to our government. I don’t know if I call that a donation to charity or not (laughing). Part of the privilege that comes with winning the award is they allow you to invite friends and family to go to Stockholm with you. One of the nice memories of Stockholm is my wife, both of my brothers and my son were there, and quite a few people close to me went as well. So we were able to do that. We haven’t worked out the details for the rest. I suppose eventually we’ll think about the sensible thing to do.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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