R. Duncan Luce, a pioneering mathematical psychologist at UC Irvine and National Medal of Science winner, died Saturday, Aug. 11, after a short illness. He was 87.
Hailed as one of the most influential figures in the social sciences, Luce combined formal math models and psychological experiments to understand and predict aspects of human behavior, fundamentally altering theories of individual and group decision making. His nine books – including Individual Choice Behavior – are widely recognized as groundbreaking in both economics and psychology and have been used by generations of students and academics. Luce’s work over half a century, which also yielded more than 250 scientific articles, crossed disciplinary boundaries to offer an innovative perspective on human behavior.
“Duncan Luce was one of the giants in the social and behavioral sciences and an exemplary scholar, educator and human being,” said Barbara Dosher, dean of UCI’s School of Social Sciences. “He contributed to our intellectual lives – but also to our community, where he quietly set an example of kindness and generosity that will be long remembered.”
UCI Chancellor Michael Drake called Luce tireless in his pursuit of knowledge.
“Duncan Luce was an internationally significant scholar for over half a century. He helped establish and build our campus in the 1970s. He returned in the 1988 and was actively engaged until just a few days ago. He was a generous and inspirational leader throughout all the many years he devoted to our university. The world has lost a great scholar, and we have lost a great friend. He will be missed.”
Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and chancellor at UCI from 1998 to 2005, said Luce was enormously creative and productive in mathematics, psychology and economics throughout his career.
“He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1972, where he has contributed greatly,” Cicerone said. “My wife, Carol, and I have always been in awe over his intellect and his high standards, even after we became close personal friends with him.”
Born May 16, 1925, Luce grew up in Scranton, Pa. He completed a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1945 and a doctorate in mathematics in 1950, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also participated in the V-12 Navy college training program and served on a shakedown cruise for the aircraft carrier Kearsarge during a three-year Navy stint between degrees. Afterward, he joined the Navy Reserve.
Luce began his academic career at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics in 1950, then moved to Columbia University. He had early professorial appointments at the University of Pennsylvania and the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. He came to UCI in 1972 as a member of the social sciences faculty, but left a few years later for Harvard University’s psychology department, which he chaired for three years. Luce returned to Irvine in 1988 to found and direct the campus’s Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences, eventually being named Distinguished Research Professor in cognitive sciences and economics.
Susan V. Bryant, interim executive vice chancellor & provost, has been a longtime professor at UCI and remembers Luce as a superb scholar and human being, as well as a calm and reasoned voice. “I will miss his quiet, wry sense of humor and gentle nature,” she said.
Among many other distinctions, Luce was a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences.
As recently as this April, he received two prestigious honors. The Patrick Suppes Prize in Psychology, awarded by the American Philosophical Society, was presented to the prolific scientist for continuous research and publications in decision making and utility theory since the 1950s.
Luce also was named one of two 2012 winners of the Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award. Bestowed by the Council of University of California Emeriti Associations, it recognizes faculty in the humanities and social sciences for post-retirement scholarship.
In 2005, President George W. Bush presented to him the National Medal of Science (award year 2003), making Luce the first UC professor in behavioral sciences to receive it. Additional accolades included the 2001 Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology from the American Psychological Foundation and the 2004 Norman Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Experimental Psychologists. Luce garnered several of UCI’s most prestigious honors: the 2001 Medal, the Alumni Association’s 2007 Extraordinarius award and the 2003-04 Daniel G. Aldrich Jr. Distinguished University Service Award.
Luce is survived by his wife, Carolyn Scheer Luce; his daughter, Aurora, and her husband; and two granddaughters. He will be remembered fondly by his extended family of friends and colleagues at UCI and throughout higher education.
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