“A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind

388 pages plus epilogue, notes, bibliography and index. Published 1998

This book is subtitled “The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash”

One of the reviews quoted on this book’s cover says “Reads like a fine novel”. No way. I disagree. No novelist would come up with so much detail, and provide such extensive historical context. This is an exceptionally fine biography. It deserves the awards it won.

Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness that brings on delusions (often voices) and erratic, antisocial behavior. The old-fashioned term “madness” seems appropriate. Despite advances in psychiatry, it is still (in 2019) hard to diagnose, hard to treat and almost impossible to cure. One of Nash’s two sons also suffered from schizophrenia.

Nash was born in 1928 and diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1959. He was hospitalized several times, and it’s hard to tell if his treatment, which included insulin shock therapy and electroshock therapy, saved his life or made him worse. Because Nasar delves into Nash’s mental state in great detail, this book is a valuable contribution to ongoing efforts to understand and destigmatize mental illness, as well as being a sad reminder of how much about the human mind remains frighteningly mysterious.

Another valuable aspect of this book is its discussion of America in the 1950s, a time of political paranoia, technological hubris and rapid changes in American social patterns. The “Red Scare” and nuclear arms race impacted Nash along with other academics.

What else? Nash was a mathematical genius, but received the Nobel Prize (1994) in Economic Sciences, for his work on game theory. Is economics a science? (And what is game theory, anyway?) The Nobel Prize in economics (a late addition to the categories of the Swedish Academy) was never looked upon with favor by the Nobel Foundation and most of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Nasar provides a detailed look at the controversy over giving the Prize to a man whose work had been done decades earlier, and who was presumed dead by many who admired his publications.

This brings me to another interesting aspect of this book, the role of Princeton University. What happened to John Nash after his academic life fell apart? The University, his wife Alicia and the Princeton community of mathematicians “supported’ him. His illness was so severe and his behavior so extreme that he might well have been institutionalized or ended up on the street. Alicia divorced him, then kept him in her house as a “boarder”. Princeton University allowed him to wander freely. He roamed the mathematics department, mostly at night, avoiding human contact and frightening staff members occasionally. Students referred to him as “the phantom”. He left strange long messages on blackboards. The University and the town of Princeton tolerated and protected him.

Then John Nash received the Nobel Prize and made as astonishing comeback. In mental health terms, it was either remission or cure. He was able to travel for the ceremonial acceptance of the Nobel Prize. Having learned some computer programming during the long hiatus in his career, he was able to resume work, though not as a creative mathematician. John and Alicia Nash remarried, and Nash made heroic effort to reconnect and reconcile with family and friends who had been driven away by his prior craziness and insensitivity.

Tragically, John and Alicia Nash died in car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2015.

Much of this book is based on interviews. Nasar talked to more than 100 people, including Nash himself and family members. It’s a documentary tour de force. Nasar dedicated the book to Alicia Nash, showing her profound respect and admiration.

I was curious about Sylvia Nasar. She published one other book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (2011). Born in 1947, she earned a BA in Literature from Antioch College and an MA in Economics from NYU. On her web page, she says

“…economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing its material fate in its own hands rather than in Fate.”

This is more positive than anything else I’ve read about economics! I want to learn more.


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