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israeli mathematician and economist Robert (also known as Bob, Johnny, and Yisrael) Aumann has been a central figure in the founding of game theory and made significant contributions to the theory’s application to economics, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005. The Nobel Prize Committee noted that his work “enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” Aumann is the founder of the Center for the Study of Rationalism and a member of the Einstein Institute for Mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences.


Aumann was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, on 8 June 1930. He grew up in an upper middle-class Orthodox Jewish family. In 1938, Aumann’s family fled Nazi Germany and moved to the United States, where they settled in New York. Aumann graduated from a Jewish religious school, where he excelled in mathematics, and obtained a B.Sc. in Mathematics at the City College of New York in 1950. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he pursued advanced degrees in mathematics under Professor George W. Whitehead, Aumann received a Ph.D. in 1955. In the fall of 1956 he took up a position as instructor of mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he still teaches.

Aumann’s main contribution is to the study of game theory, a science of strategy, which attempts to determine what actions different “players” in a given field—trading partners, employers, unions, even crime syndicates—should take to secure the best outcome for themselves. In particular, Aumann analyzed repeated games, in which players encounter the same situations over and over again. As a mathematician, early in his career he did a pioneering work in knot theory, a branch of algebraic topology inspired by observations of common knots. Recently his findings in knot theory proved useful in understanding the structure of some types of DNA. Aumann is an inveterate advocate of a unified view of rational behavior in many fields of human endeavor such as political science, biology, computer science, and religion. He chose the topic of “War and Peace” for his Nobel Prize lecture, in which he discussed a resolution of the conflicts in the Middle East. Aumann insisted that wars are rational and need to be studied like other phenomena.


Aumann was deeply affected by his childhood experience of his family’s flight from Nazi Germany and loss of all possessions. He is a devoutly religious man. As a religious Zionist, he believes in a profound link between the Jewish people and the land of Israel and especially Jerusalem. One of his sons, Shlomo, was killed while serving in the Israel Defense Forces’ armored corps during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Considered a hard-liner with regard to the Middle East conflict, Aumann promotes his views in public lectures and articles. He is a member of Professors for a Strong Israel (PSI), a rightwing organization of American and Israeli academics. Aumann vehemently opposed the “disengagement” from Gaza in August 2005. In several speeches, Aumann claimed that it was a crime to forcefully remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and that the disengagement would undermine Israeli security.


The work on game theory for which Aumann is best known was done in the 1960s, during the Cold War, when he applied the insights first developed by John Von Neumann and John Nash to nuclear arms race strategy. He later used a similar approach to the study of economic behavior. Aumann also used game theory to find a solution to the Talmudic “division problem” that provided the rationale for dividing the heritage of a late husband among his three wives, depending on the worth of the heritage (compared to its original value). Aumann was later involved in a scientific controversy because he supported Bible codes research (computer-aided statistical analysis of the text of the Hebrew Bible in order to find encrypted descriptions of historical personalities, events, and important dates). He originally vouched for the validity of the Great Rabbis Experiment (the alleged encoding of the birth and death dates of a set of rabbis in the Book of Genesis) but later discounted H. J. Gans’s claim regarding the existence of encoded text in the Bible.


It remains too early to assess Aumann’s ultimate legacy. He certainly will be remembered as a mathematician who strove to apply theoretical concepts of rationality to diverse fields of science and politics.


Name: Robert John Aumann

Birth: 1930, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Family: First wife, Esther Schlesinger, d. 1998; second wife, Batya Cohn; five children

Nationality: Israeli

Education: City College of New York, 1950, B.Sc. mathematics; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1952, M.Sc. mathematics, 1955, Ph.D. mathematics


  • 1956: Publishes “Asphericity of Alternating Knots,” Annals of Mathematics
  • 1956–present: Teaches mathematics, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • 1959: Publishes “Acceptable Points in General Cooperative n-Person Games”
  • 2004: Wins Israel Prize for Economic Research
  • 2005: Wins Nobel Prize for Economics
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