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A Beautiful Mind : A biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, 1994 (1998)
National Book Critics' Circle Award (1998)
He was obnoxious. What redeemed him was a keen, beautiful,
It is simply the case that we treat extraordinary people differently than we treat average people. When it comes to beautiful women or gifted athletes we tend to find this double standard appalling, yet when it comes to genius, we tend to accept it as something to which they are entitled. This is the largely unacknowledged subtext that plays out in Sylvia Nasar's interesting but overlong, biography of Nobel Laureate John Nash. A brilliant young mathematician, Nash stood out for both the quality of his mind and the unpleasantness of his personality even within the eccentric world of academic mathematics. He developed an apparently well-deserved reputation for attacking problems from unique angles, inventing his own ways of arriving to the already solved steps along the way, making intuitive leaps, which would only later be proven, and deriving final solutions which seemed so improbable as to be impossible to colleagues. While still a graduate student at Princeton he took up the study of game theory, which was in its infancy and which John von Neumann, who was at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study (as was Albert Einstein), had been pioneering--Nasar has some particularly fascinating detail about the board games that the students and professors invented for themselves, one of which was actually called "Nash" because he invented it. His interest led him to come up with an innovation called the "Nash Equilibrium" :
Nash Equilibrium : If there is a set of strategies with the property that
no player can benefit by changing her strategy while
for which he would receive the Nobel Prize in Economics, but not until some forty years later, and therein lies the tale.
Nash, in these early years, was rude, fanatically competitive, condescending, socially awkward, and prone to developing passionate crushes on other men. Yet these behaviors--with the possible exception of his bisexuality--were generally accepted as the typical eccentricities of a great mathematician--as if toleration of such usually intolerable behavior was no more than the price we all have to pay to bask in the presence of genius. (Ms Nasar even proposes an interesting idea, that Nash's very lack of social skills may have helped him to come up with his theory of equilibrium.) But Nash did alienate some people, both by the way he acted and just by being more gifted than they, and eventually some of these personality aberrations did catch up to him. One of the most important instances as far as his career was concerned occurred when he was working at the Rand Corporation in California (in 1954), but was dismissed after being arrested for indecent exposure in a Santa Monica men's room. This was vital because it effectively barred him from most of the quite extensive work that government was funding under the auspices of the Cold War. Maybe the most revelatory as far as his sense of entitlement was the child, John David Stier, he had out of wedlock with Eleanor Stier, a Boston nurse who he may or may not have intended to marry at some point. Instead he married Alicia Larde, a beautiful El Salvadoran MIT student, one of whose chief attractions certainly seems to have been that she made a more appealing accouterment to his lofty career ambitions.
The couple had a son, Nash got tenure at MIT and he continued to do exciting, breakthrough mathematical work (with partial differential equations in particular), but he did not receive the formal recognition by which he was determined to judge the progress of his career (including not winning a prestigious medal reserved for young mathematicians), and so began to take on more extravagantly difficult problems : quantum theory in physics and Riemann's Hypothesis in the field of number theory. His study in these areas, which had perplexed generations of scientists and mathematicians, refused to yield up the spectacular insights to which he had become accustomed. Meanwhile, several personal crises cropped up, including a second pregnancy for Alicia and a bout of unrequited love for a younger and equally brilliant mathematician, Paul Cohen. Whether the cumulative effect of all these stress-inducing factors played a role or whether the disease was completely organic and developed at its own pace, in 1959, at age 30, Nash began to display increasingly clear symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Among other manifestations, he became obsessed with the idea of world government and on a trip to Europe tried repeatedly to renounce his American citizenship.
So began a period of thirty years during which he would be in and out of mental institutions, enjoying periodic stretches of relative stability, but largely disappearing from the academic world. Though friends and former colleagues did sometimes manage to secure him work, he could not really return to teaching. And though he eventually wound up living with her, he and Alicia were divorced. In the end he was reduced to wandering the streets of Princeton and the halls of the school, writing strange messages on blackboards and earning the nickname "The Phantom of Fine Hall."
Then, in the 1980s, with no more plausible explanation than there was for its onset, the severity of Nash's disease abated drastically and he was once again able to interact coherently with others and even to do some mathematical work that made sense. So, just at the time--in the mid-80s--that the Nobel Economics committee began considering awarding a prize for work done in the field of game theory, Nash began to regain enough grasp on reality that he came to be a considered a serious candidate. In what may be the most fascinating portion of the book, Ms Nasar details the absurd behind-the-scenes power struggles that went on in the Nobel committee, but in the end, of course, he did become a Nobel Laureate in 1994.
The arc of the story has so much natural appeal and Nash so exemplifies our perverse desire for genius to approach madness that the book can't help but compel our interest. Yet, as I read I couldn't help feeling that Ms Nasar had fallen prey to the aforementioned double standard in so far as her sympathy for Nash and her awe of his genius lead her to repeatedly excuse even behaviors that are not clearly related to his disease. For instance, in discussing the firing from Rand, she says that the "...episode captured some of the most vicious currents of an increasingly paranoid and intolerant era...." Yet, even if he was not already losing his mind at that point, one wonders what Ms Nasar expects of the nation's Security services : that they allow such a manifestly unstable person to maintain a top secret security clearance? This seems ridiculous. Similarly, when Nash is floundering around Europe trying to quit being an American in order to become a citizen of "the world", she compares him to a character from Kafka, being tormented and thwarted by ann indifferent or even malevolent bureaucracy. But, one hardly feels it should be necessary to point out, he was insane and no bureaucrat could have granted his demented wish. In fact, it appears that several State Department officials bent over backwards to try and convince him not to continue to pursue such a lunatic course. Again, it seems that Ms Nasar has become such an advocate for Mr. Nash that she has trouble seeing clearly the external implications of Nash's behavior. In these episodes, as elsewhere, the book is too subjective.
The lack of objectivity also, at least in my opinion, must have obscured to the author the rather off-putting nature of her subject. Many of John Nash's friends and colleagues and his family deserve great credit for not abandoning him when he became truly ill and if he was actually ill, though still functional, throughout his earlier years, then perhaps some of his worst behavior is somewhat explicable. But Ms Nasar does not suggest that this was the case. In fact, she at least raises questions about whether Nash was ever clinically schizophrenic--though she cites many indicators that lead her, and would lead us, to believe he was, including the fact that one of his sons also developed the disease. And the sad truth is that before the onset of his schizophrenia John Nash was just not a very nice nor a sympathetic person. He treated other people abominably. Were it not for his great mental acuity we would consider him to be merely an [expletive deleted]. So, while one obviously would not wish madness on anyone, the supposed grand tragedy here depends for its effect on our obeisance to Nash's brainpower, an obeisance that Ms Nasar is all too willing to render; it is not as if this is an instance of a particularly good, or even minimally decent, person being struck down. In its own strange way, the book is very much antidemocratic, assuming that because Mr. Nash is smarter than the rest of us it is especially tragic that he was deprived of his faculties. If Mr. Nash had been Ms Nasar's butcher, would she excuse all of his sins so blithely? Or would he be just some meat-carving jerk who lost it? For myself, I found him too unpleasant a person for me to ever feel a great deal of empathy for his plight. I ultimately found the story interesting--most of all the academic milieu in which higher level mathematics is pursued and the genuinely odd men who populate the profession--but not all that moving.
-EXCERPT : Chapter One of A Beautiful Mind
-PROFILE : The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate (SYLVIA NASAR, November 13, 1994, NY Times)
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-AWARD : Salon Book Award 1998
JOHN NASH (1928-) :
GAME THEORY :
I believe that the review of the book is extremely well written and should have received a much higher Grade. However, some information is presented in a very dry manner with a lack of interest. But over all, the review is terrific and the personal opinion part is very well presented.
- Sep-29-2002, 21:14