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A Beautiful Mind : A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr. Hardcover – June 12, 1998
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Stories of famously eccentric Princetonians abound--such as that of chemist Hubert Alyea, the model for The Absent-Minded Professor, or Ralph Nader, said to have had his own key to the library as an undergraduate. Or the "Phantom of Fine Hall," a figure many students had seen shuffling around the corridors of the math and physics building wearing purple sneakers and writing numerology treatises on the blackboards. The Phantom was John Nash, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of his generation, who had spiraled into schizophrenia in the 1950s. His most important work had been in game theory, which by the 1980s was underpinning a large part of economics. When the Nobel Prize committee began debating a prize for game theory, Nash's name inevitably came up--only to be dismissed, since the prize clearly could not go to a madman. But in 1994 Nash, in remission from schizophrenia, shared the Nobel Prize in economics for work done some 45 years previously.
Economist and journalist Sylvia Nasar has written a biography of Nash that looks at all sides of his life. She gives an intelligent, understandable exposition of his mathematical ideas and a picture of schizophrenia that is evocative but decidedly unromantic. Her story of the machinations behind Nash's Nobel is fascinating and one of very few such accounts available in print (the CIA could learn a thing or two from the Nobel committees). This highly recommended book is indeed "a story about the mystery of the human mind, in three acts: genius, madness, reawakening." --Mary Ellen Curtin
From Publishers Weekly
Nasar has written a notable biography of mathematical genius John Forbes Nash (b. 1928), a founder of game theory, a RAND Cold War strategist and winner of a 1994 Nobel Prize in economics. She charts his plunge into paranoid schizophrenia beginning at age 30 and his spontaneous recovery in the early 1990s after decades of torment. He attributes his remission to will power; he stopped taking antipsychotic drugs in 1970 but underwent a half-dozen involuntary hospitalizations. Born in West Virginia, the flamboyant mathematical wizard rubbed elbows at Princeton and MIT with Einstein, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener. He compartmentalized his secret personal life, shows Nasar, hiding his homosexual affairs with colleagues from his mistress, a nurse who bore him a son out of wedlock, while he also courted Alicia Larde, an MIT physics student whom he married in 1957. Their son, John, born in 1959, became a mathematician and suffers from episodic schizophrenia. Alicia divorced Nash in 1963, but they began living together again as a couple around 1970. Today Nash, whose mathematical contributions span cosmology, geometry, computer architecture and international trade, devotes himself to caring for his son. Nasar, an economics correspondent for the New York Times, is equally adept at probing the puzzle of schizophrenia and giving a nontechnical context for Nash's mathematical and scientific ideas.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
It is also the story about how after all, no matter how brilliant and intellectually superior we are, we are after all human. We make mistakes, we are unsure of what we want, we are afraid of being a failure, we crave for recognition and we love winning. Life is hard and we have to accept it and face it.
There are many interesting insights and anedotes throughout the book. JN was apparently labeled as an "underachiever" by his elementary school teachers, with his worse grades being in music and mathematics. It is no surprise to learn that books were his best friends as a child, but it is interesting to learn that he spent much of his childhood performing experiments in his home laboratory. Mathematics is not really an empirical science, and Nash's mathematical achievements rank more as pure than applied. Widely read, he also evidently preferred solving problems "in his head" rather than via the ubiquitous pencil and paper.
The biographer also gives interesting insights into the kind of university Princeton was at the time JN entered. In the Princeton department of mathematics, "Grades meant nothing" she quotes Solomon Lefschetz as saying. Emily Artin, the famous algebraist at Princeton at the time, apparently did not like Nash, clashing with him frequently in the "common room", and recommended that Nash be thrown out of Princeton. Also, the reader learns that game theory was viewed as somewhat "declasse" at Princeton, which is even more interesting considering its importance now in business and in research in artificial intelligence. The formalist school of mathematics held center stage at the time, and the biographer labels Nash's paper on the topic "one of the first to apply the axiomatic method to a problem in the social sciences". John von Neumann apparently thought his results "trivial" though, says the biographer. A whole chapter is spent on Nash's determination to avoid military service, for reasons that entering the military would preclude the obtaining of a prominent academic position.
Nash's bisexuality is perhaps a surprise, if compared to the rest of the mathematical community, who are in general heterosexual, then and now. Attitudes about homosexuality cost him a job according to the biographer. In the current age of political correctness and diversity-with-bias, this would be unheard of. With reference to his personal life, Nash's relationship with Alicia was delineated beautifully by the biographer. Even a mind so given to abstractions as Nash's needs the concreteness and warmth of human interaction. The perplexing age anxiety of mathematicians is also brought out in the book. A perusal of the brilliant work of the over-40 Edward Witten and Andrew Wiles should of course put this (crippling) anxiety to rest. Nash's decision to work on the Riemann Hypothesis would perhaps, if he had continued to work on it, brought him to middle-age and beyond.
One could perhaps speculate on what Nash would have achieved mathematically if mental illness would not have crippled him. Such speculation is superfluous though, as the contributions he made are more than most individuals have or could have made. His life hitherto has been one of overwhelming success, and his mind to be viewed with quiet envy.
Rather than review what has already been posted over the years, I will just say the book is helpful if you have an interest in mental illness (and higher mathematics), are curious about Princeton and other ivy league universities, and have seen the movie. It is not an easy book to read. John Nash, the heralded math genius who would be around 83 years old now, fathered a son with the same illness.
I take comfort in the fact that now, eleven years since Nash was able to enter a remission and continue his quest in problem solving, there are no doubt better medications and more understanding of this disease.