First reactions. Telephone interview, October 2023
“I have always thought of myself as a detective”
“I have always thought of myself as a detective,” 2023 economic sciences laureate Claudia Goldin says when speaking about her research: “The detective always believes there is a way of finding the answer!” Recorded shortly after the public announcement of her prize, this conversation begins with Goldin praising Professor Randi Hjalmarsson of the University of Gothenburg, who fielded questions at the prize press conference after Goldin was disconnected. Now an economic history detective, Goldin explains how she was first switched onto detecting by Paul de Kruif’s book Microbe Hunters, published in 1926, cited by many Nobel Prize laureates across the generations as an inspirational read.
[Claudia Goldin] Hello.
[Adam Smith] Hello, am I speaking with Claudia Goldin?
[AS] I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, my name is Adam Smith.
[CG] Yes, I was trying to get onto the press conference and I was somehow thrown off the phone.
[AS] It is most unfortunate, I’m so sorry that that happened.
[CG] That’s fine, but the person who took my place (Professor Randi Hjalmarsson of the University of Gothenburg) did an excellent, excellent job and I must congratulate her.
[AS] She was good, yes.
[CG] I think she deserves a portion of the Nobel.
[AS] How lovely, yes, yes. She was excellent under…
[CG] She was incredible.
[AS] Many congratulations on the award.
[CG] Thank you very, very much.
[AS] Tell me, how did the news reach you?
[CG] The news reached me by phone this morning when I received a call and was awakened by it, very pleasantly!
[AS] That is a nice way to be woken. I imagine you wake up pretty fast with that news.
[CG] Yes, and since I go to sleep very late, it wasn’t that much after I went to sleep.
[AS} What was the first thing you did on hearing about it?
[CG] The first thing I did upon hearing it was I told my husband, who obviously had some idea of what was going on. He smiled. He said, “That’s great. Just tell me what to do.” I told him to take the dog out and make some tea and that I had to prepare for a press conference, which I wasn’t part of.
[AS] I’m glad the dog made it into this call as well because of course Pika features on your website.
[CG] Yes, the dog is right here. He’s a very mature animal. He understands what to do.
[AS] In the context of somebody who studies historical trends in gender equality, what does the award of this prize mean to you? Only the third woman to have been awarded the economics prize, the first unshared economics prize to a woman.
[CG] Well, it certainly means a tremendous amount. It also means a lot because it’s an award for big ideas and for long-term change. The Nobel is often given for extraordinarily important findings and ideas, often theoretical, but there have been prizes awarded for what I call big ideas and long-term change. And several of them were given to my teachers and to their teachers. So I was a student of Bob Fogel, who won a Nobel Prize in Economic History with Doug North, and I was also a student of Gary Becker’s. I am a third generation Nobel since Bob Fogel was a student of Simon Kuznets.
[AS] There’s an emphasis on the detective work in your studies.
[AS] That’s a lovely concept, the idea of the researcher as detective. Can you just tell us about that?
[CG] Yes. I have always thought of myself as a detective, and I wrote many years ago, over 20 years ago, I wrote a piece called The Economist as Detective. And I’ve always wanted to be a detective. I’ve been a detective since I was a little kid. I wanted long ago to be a bacteriologist and to do my detective work under a microscope. But instead, I do my detective work with archival documents, with large amounts of data. I mean, there was a time when we didn’t have this tremendous amount of data stored, and one had to pull it out from archival documents.
[AS] That’s physical work, that’s dirty work, isn’t it?
[CG] It’s dirty work. But the point is, being a detective means that you have a question. And the question is so important that you will go to any end to find it. In addition, a detective always believes that there is a way of finding the answer. And that’s the way I have always done research.
[AS] That’s wonderful. And it’s the passion for the question that drives it all, isn’t it?
[CG] Yes, I think that that’s what it is. Sometimes questions are so large and so important that no one’s going to tell you that you can’t answer them.
[AS] It takes you right back to being a childhood detective when children don’t understand that there are limits to what they can do, which is wonderful.
[CG] Precisely. When I was in high school and got interested in the field of bacteriology, I would read about the famous micro hunters.
[AS] That wonderful book by Paul de Kruif.
[CG] That’s exactly right! And it has influenced countless individuals.
[AS] That book has influenced generations of laureates before you. And how lovely that it continues to be an influence, yes.
[CG] Yes. So they’re now interviewing my doppelganger.
[AS] Oh, they’re interviewing Randi. Oh, yes.
[CG] Yes. I don’t know if I’ve ever met Randi, but I certainly need to meet Randi.
[AS] And you certainly will come December. Oh, that’s wonderful. And once again, many congratulations.
[CG] Certainly. Bye now.
[AS] Thank you. Bye bye.
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