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A Beautiful Mind Paperback – July 12, 2011
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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 --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
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. --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
For the first time I can recall, I departed a movie and went directly to a bookstore to buy the book. (I'm still 100% on never purchasing a soundtrack CD from one of those theater vending machines.) This is NOT the same story as the movie. Nasar's biography of Nash is a thoroughly researched, riviting story that took me to worlds I've never known (advanced mathmatics and severe mental illness). It is a fast-paced read, a book I could not put down.
There has been controversy about some of the details from the book being left out of the movie, but I think Ron Howard departed masterfully from the book to provide the escence of Nash's story without bogging down in some confusing issues that Nasar, in a book form, handles with appropriate detail and context.
Watch the movie and read the book. Both are great. But they are different.
Though there is some redundancy in the text, I still read every word. The exploration of the themes of genius and acknowledged contributions, followed by more than 30 years of paranoid schizophrenia and then remission and recognition is gripping.
The care of the biographer in acknowledging and noting her sources is very unusual for most popular and semi-popular biographers. That she took her subject and his work and his journey seriously is never in doubt. There is no pseudo psych. There is lots of exploration. The author explores very sensitive areas thou rally, but sensitively.
Nash's homosexuality, his seeming contempt for people and their feelings nothing is left out. His forty-five year relationship with the woman who has been his wife is not a simple story and the author takes her time to present the facts. Still, she does not judge, she reports.
I did enjoy the sections about Princeton and MIT and the world of mathematicians. An economics PhD candidate I had dinner with said, "I heard it's all about relationships and not mathematics". The mathematicians in the book say economics is not very serious math. (Nash seems to agree with that in an ironic way.)
In short I was charmed by the book, it gave me a lot a material with which to consider the nature of genius, mathematical accomplishment, mental illness and (particularly the effect of other people on ones sense of self) and what is meant by a whole life.
I understand that there is a lot of talk about love in the movie. In the book the word is not mentioned once-these are not touchy feely folk, still love and friendship are very important to the story.
Read the book.
Naturally introverted, even at a young age, Nash was described as being "bookish and slightly odd." His mother had him reading by the time he was four and instead of coloring books, his father gave him science books to read. But despite his parents' efforts, the young Nash was prone to daydreaming in school, which led his teachers to describe him as an underachiever. A loner and the ultimate nerd, his best friends were books, his bedroom resembled a science lab, he was always the last to be chosen for baseball, and at a school dance, he danced with chairs rather than girls.
Although his elementary school math teachers complained he couldn't do the work, his mother noticed he wasn't following the teachers' instructions because he had devised a simpler way of solving the problems. By high school, he was deciphering problems his chemistry teacher wrote on the blackboard, without using pencil or paper. In college, his math professors would call on Nash when they themselves ran into problems solving complex equations they were presenting to their classes.
But together with his brilliance were eccentricities that became more evident as Nash aged. Those close to him characterized him as "disconnected" and "deeply unknowable."
He had little use for textbooks and was known for solving difficult (and often previously unsolvable) problems using "no references but his own mind." His peers called the results he was able to obtain "beautiful" and "striking", perhaps his greatest achievement being his work on game theory, which led to a Nobel Prize for economics in 1994. He possessed a true love of discovery - while swimming with a friend in California, the two were dragged out to sea by an undercurrent and nearly drowned. Finally reaching shore exhausted, the friend was grateful for surviving while Nash, after briefly catching his breath, re-entered the surf exclaiming, "I wonder if that was an accident. I think I'll go back in and see."
Nash was in California during the Cold War working for the internationally famous think tank known as the RAND Corporation. Funded by the U.S. Air Force, RAND was populated by "the best minds in mathematics, physics, political science, and economics." Their principle focus was developing strategies to deter - or if that failed, to win - a nuclear war against Russia. Suddenly, the game theory Nash had been intrigued by at Princeton had a practical application, for war is the ultimate game of conflict. Years later, a more profitable application would be the FCC's $7-billion sale of cell phone air space to competing communications conglomerates.
Possibly the oddest in an odd bunch of ducks, Nash's math colleagues over the years included a professor who used a mathematical formula to select his suits; the manic-depressive Norbert Wiener (the founder of cybernetics), who was known to say such things as "When we met, was I walking to the faculty club or away from it? For in the latter case I've already had my lunch"; and others who were "beset by shyness, awkwardness, strange mannerisms, and all kinds of physical and psychological tics.'"
By the age of 30 it became apparent Nash was more than just eccentric as he started to display symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia; behaving suspiciously, becoming suspect of others, and finally announcing that "abstract powers from outer space" were communicating with him through encrypted messages printed in the New York Times and broadcast by radio stations. He developed "an obsession with the stock and bond markets," investing his mother's savings, convinced he could outsmart the markets and earn a profit. Instead, the results were "disastrous, to say the least." He was offered a prestigious chair in the mathematics department at the University of Chicago - something he had long strived for - but in response the chairman of the department received a strange letter from Nash declining the offer since he had decided to become the "Emperor of Antarctica" instead.
Eventually, his illness required long periods of hospitalization while he endured drug and insulin shock therapy, with the result being the loss of a considerable portion of his memory. When an associate came to visit during one of his hospital stays, Nash mused, "What if they don't let me out until I'm NORMAL?" Although Nash shared some exquisite company, at one point being hospitalized with the poet Robert Lowell, on the whole he was slightly atypical of the average mental patient. Most don't work on a paper on fluid dynamics while institutionalized, and he took some ribbing for this. Nasar notes an instance when another patient remarked, "Professor, let me show you how one uses a broom."
Despite his illness, the math community rallied around Nash. A colleague remembers, "Everybody wanted to help [him]. His was a mind too good to waste."
By 1990, his illness had gone into remission and he was able to stop taking antipsychotic drugs, while learning to separate rational thinking from delusional thinking. In spite of his amazing recovery, awarding him with the Nobel Prize was a contentious issue due to his history of schizophrenia. But once awarded, there was resolve that the right decision had been made about a very worthy individual. One committee member recalls, "We resurrected him in a way. It was emotionally satisfying." Soon after it was announced he had won, Nash half-joked "he hoped that getting the Nobel would improve his credit rating because he really wanted a credit card."
Nasar's engaging account of Nash's life and work is both comprehensive and well-written. It is highly recommended reading if you're looking for the full story.
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.