A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by Sylvia Nasar. Recommended.
The prologue to Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nobel Laureate John Nash, Jr., summarizes the mathematical marvel’s life thus: genius, madness, reawakening.
Nash, who was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize for Economics in a controversy that would ultimately change the nature of the prize, is the child of mostly unremarkable parents. His father, John, Sr., held a middle-manager position with the Appalachian Power Company inspecting power lines, while his mother, Virginia, was a “public-school thinker.” Despite his mother’s efforts to push him, he remains socially isolated, without any close friends. In the fourth grade, he begins to demonstrate the original approach to problems that will become his hallmark as a genius. Interestingly enough, it will be an extensive network of friends and peers that helps to ensure Nash’s place in academic and Nobel history.
Nash may have a “beautiful mind” with a unique way of looking at difficult problems, but Nasar does not portray him as a likeable man in his pre-mental illness heyday. Lacking in social skills and graces but not in ego, he is a class snob. Like many boys and young men, he plays pranks — but many of his have pathological undertones. Some cause serious physical pain and embarrassment. Others have the potential to cause death (one person recounts how a Nash prank might have resulted in electrocution of the victim). As a student and young academic, he delights in one-upmanship and in the humiliation of less-gifted men. In a recurring theme, he will flirt romantically with other bright young men. Much is forgiven Nash by his mentors and peers, however, because of his unquestioned mathematical gifts and because such behavior (at least, to some extent) is expected of great mathematical minds.
At the peak of his career, Nash succumbs to what is diagnosed as schizophrenia, which Nasar implies may have been the result of stress brought about by concerns about being drafted and Nash’s insistence on tackling near-impossible problems and the resulting frustrations. Whatever the cause, Nash becomes delusional, thinking aliens are speaking to him through The New York Times and feeling a compelling need to renounce his U.S. citizenship and to become a world citizen. For the next 30 years, Nash — and his genius — will be lost to the world, which, if it thinks of him at all, thinks him dead.
It is only a few years before he is nominated for the Nobel Prize in Economics (for his contributions to game theory) that Nash will slowly emerge from his illness. During this time, much of the mathematics community, including friends and rivals who were uncomfortable with his illness, rally behind him. Through most of his adult life, his wife, Alicia, is there to take care of him — even after marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
To write A Beautiful Mind, Nasar read and interviewed dozens of mathematicians, physicists, economists, and other academics as well as psychiatrists and mental health experts, making the book more than just a biography of John Nash, Jr. It is also an insightful overview of the tightly knit mathematics worlds of Princeton, MIT, and RAND Corporation during the 1940s and 1950s. Nash’s treatment at several private and public mental health institutions is revealing and sometimes horrifying, especially when he is treated with insulin shock therapy. The political climate — the draft for the Korean conflict, anti-Semitism, McCarthyism and its chilling effect on American academia, and the arms and space races with the Soviets — are all vivid parts of Nash’s story.
It is probably in the nature of biography that the author cannot be entirely subjective toward his or her subject; after all, he or she must have enough passion about that subject to research and write hundreds of pages about it. Nasar is clearly a fan of Nash’s; she often excuses or glosses over his youthful bad behaviour, his capacious ego, his poor treatment of those he considers inferior (including his girlfriend Eleanor and their son John David Stier), and his obsessive competitiveness. She describes him repeatedly as “handsome” with an “Olympian body” and “finely modeled” or “chiseled” features. (The photos included show Nash to have an average face and body.)
Nasar speeds through the 1970s and 1980s, no doubt because they were uneventful for the “Phantom of Fine Hall.” This leaves the reader to wonder what Nash’s official position was at Princeton (he tells a visitor he shouldn’t go into the faculty club). At this time, he appears to have had an office and is tolerated by students and staff alike.
I am always interested in genius, especially genius derailed by an enigmatic mental illness such as schizophrenia. A question (not to be answered) might be: Is Nash a genius despite schizophrenia, or is the schizophrenia an inherent part of what makes him a genius? Are the two conditions distinct, or are they inseparable? At any rate, while Nash may not have what I would consider a “beautiful mind,” it is certainly a gifted — and cursed — one.
25 June 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf