A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by Sylvia Nasar

5 February 2008

I’ve been meaning to acquire this book for a while, but it was one of those books that tend to sit on the ‘to buy’ list for ages without any action being taken on it. Thanks to BookMooch, though, I received a nice (and pretty much free!) copy only a little while ago.

A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by Sylvia Nasar

Game theory, the branch of applied mathematics that looks at strategic choices and interactions within social situations, is a key field of study in many different social sciences and other academic fields. One of the creators of the founding principles of game theory was an eccentric but brilliant mathematician who had made a name for himself among the young, up-and-coming scholars at Carnegie Mellon and Princeton in the late 1940s and early 1950s: John Forbes Nash, Jr. Nash’s publications and theories were (and still are) regarded as mathematical breakthroughs, but by the latter half of the 1950s Nash’s eccentricities began to reveal a deeper disturbance in his mind. Wild flights of fancy regarding secret numerical patterns and codes that only he could detect gave way to outright delusions of sinister worldwide conspiracies. In the frightening grip of paranoid schizophrenia, Nash all but vanished from academic life, drifting in and out of mental hospitals and fighting against his family’s attempts to get him to stay in treatment. A new generation of students who read his articles and studied his theories often assumed that he was either dead or locked up in an insane asylum somewhere. But as the years passed, Nash struggled to work through his mental illness and gradually regain his ability to function in society — and by the time his name was given as one of the winners of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics, he had recovered enough to work on mathematics once more.

Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash has won any number of awards and has been adapted for a well-known film, and it’s not difficult to see why; Nash’s story is by turns fascinating, sad, tragic, and powerful. The book has a light, conversational voice, almost chatty in tone, but the writing style by no means detracts from the solidly written prose and the easy flow with which she carries the narrative of Nash’s life — quite the contrary, in fact. Mathematics can be a daunting subject to approach even when the calculations involved are simple ones, and Nash’s work dealt with highly technical proofs and complicated equations that could easily frighten off a casual reader. One of the best aspects of Nasar’s book is how she handles the mathematics to ensure that the ideas remain comprehensible to a lay audience. She mentions the basic principles of the proofs and equations that Nash and his colleagues developed, but she generally avoids trying to delve too deeply into more technical language for her explations and descriptions. The overall effect seems to encourage truly interested readers to look to other sources for the actual mathematics, while at the same time allowing the rest of her audience to feel informed and aware, if not absolutely initiated into the details of Nash’s work. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and Nasar manages it well.

Fans of the movie starring Russell Crowe will note the many changes that the filmmakers made to adapt Nash’s story to the screen. The movie is more of a revisioning than a true adaptation — among the biographical details left out of the movie were Nash’s bisexual proclivities, his troubled relationships with his sons (one born to his wife, the other born to a girlfriend he had had before marriage), and some of the more unsavoury remarks he made during the worst times of his illness. But as far as biographies go, A Beautiful Mind is an intriguing story of a remarkable man, who even today works hard to keep the upper hand on a mental illness that nearly shattered his career and his life beyond hope of recovery.

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