Jun 11

A Beautiful Mind

Posted by Soliloquy in Mental Illness
At the age of 21, a brilliant and highly eccentric graduate student made a major contribution to game theory: John Nash had discovered an influential theory of rational human behaviour. But ten years later, at the peak of a dazzling mathematical career and soon after his marriage to a physicist, Nash suffered a breakdown. Diagnosed a schizophrenic, he was beset by bizarre delusions, unable to work, and repeatedly incarcerated in mental hospitals. A Beautiful Mind : A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr. A Beautiful Mind (unabridged audio book)

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5 Responses

  • Saw and tremendously enjoyed the movie, but kept thinking, this can’t be the real story of John Nash. As impressed as I was with director Ron Howard’s construction and Russell Crowe’s acting, I still left the theater with too many questions…and doubts.

    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.

  • If you enjoyed the movie “A Beautiful Mind” you will love this book. It is far richer in detail, context, and let’s us a bit deeper into why what Nash accomplished was so beautiful. If you find the movie a bit of a problem because it seems a bit too glossy for the facts, again, you will love this book.

    For me, the movie did a marvelous job of embodying the spirit of the book. To delve more deeply into the facts of Nash’s life and accomplishments and his illness would require a documentary or a mini-series. The movie is really a narrative poem about Nash. This book is about the people and their experiences. It is NOT a direct exposition of Nash’s technical achievements. There are other books such as “The Essential John Nash” that provide that information.

    In this masterful book we find out more about his youth, his life at college, his work after he received his doctorate and his breakdown and illness as well as the nature and scope of his recovery. There is real sorrow and loss in the book, but there is also strength and tenacity that refuses to yield to hopelessness and despair. This is a book about the people and how they lived during the storms of his achievements and his illness.

    I am not qualified to discuss the quality of Nash’s achievements, but from the admiration lavished on him by his peers and how they rallied round him it is clear that Nash was given immense gifts that he developed and used in ways that have benefited all of us even if we are unaware it.

    It seems that this is the nature of the gifts scientists and mathematicians give us. We are unaware of them until another person makes them part of other products, services, and policies that directly affect us. And even then we are unaware of the breakthroughs that made these wonderful additions to our lives possible.

    We should be grateful to Sylvia Nasar for helping us see the gifts we received from Dr. Nash and the sacrifices his wife and others made to make them possible.

  • While I wasn’t gripped by this biography until about a third of the way through, when it grabbed my attention it did so powerfully. While I agree with the reviewer below who suggests that this is not the book to read if you’re interested exclusively in the the technical features of Nash’s mathematical contributions, I believe that this criticism is misplaced. The book (it seems to me) is intended for an intelligent lay audience; it doesn’t pretend to be a survey of his scientific accomplishments and failures.

    I was especially struck by the truly immense amount of competition that exists among math scholars for status. Although portraying this competition is hardly the principal aim of Nasar’s beautiful book, she conveys the intensity of the struggle among scholars for recognition with impressive clarity and perspective.

  • I was led to the book by a movie review in the NYT that said the movie did not tell the story of the book and that it was very serious and important story. I am writing this review because having read it I would like to discuss it.

    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.

  • A very comprehensive biography takes us on a journey from a small West Virginia town where Nash was born to his current state of tentatively sane semi-retirement that he shares with his ex-wife Alicia. This is a biography of one of the most insightful American mathematicians. Nash gave brilliant intuitive and relevant ideas their precise mathematical formulations. The best known of these is Nash Equilibrium. In non-cooperative games (competition only, no coalitions allowed) with perfect information (all possibilities are in principle knowable, even if not in practice known to all competitors) there exists the best strategy leading to a predetermined outcome. This is why games such as chess and checkers are in principle solvable–the outcome is determined even before any moves are made. The reason these games remain interesting (at least at the time of the writing) is because players do not know the most rational strategy and thus make “mistakes,” leading to outcomes that are for practical purposes not exactly predictable.

    Like many artistic, scientific, and political geniuses, Nash came from a small town and a family that had to struggle finanically. Yet he adopted an aloof and superior approach toward the people he met as a student and later as a mathematician. He was frequently arrogant, aggressive, and inappropriately sarcastic. Morality seemed to him a thinly veiled hypocricy. In this light it is not surprising that Nash admired Nietzsche. Nash behaved rudely and even cruelly toward those who loved him, including his mistress Eleanor (who seems to me to have been his common law wife), his devoted wife Alicia, and both of his sons. I am amazed that after Nash fell desperately ill, many of his colleagues, members of the U.S. government, and his wife remained so loyal, helpful, and concerned.

    Nash seems to have recovered from paranoid schizophrenia by the early 1990s and was awarded Nobel Prize in economics. This may have been well deserved, because much of the field of economics has been recast in the language of game theory (cooperative and non-cooperative), and Nash was a key contributor whom no one could ignore, especially after the Nobel Committee decided to focus only on non-cooperative games for its 1994 Prize.

    One may find it challenging to feel very sympathetic towards Nash because of his arrogance, unbridled sarcasm, insensitive put-downs, and downright cruelty towards those who cared about him. Many have noted that during his illness Nash was a better person, even if he could not exercise his mathematical faculties much of the time. After his remission, Nash partly reverted to his old ways, speaking cruelly to his elder son John Stier who tried to reestablish the relationship, and occasionally hurting Alicia with his stupid verbal behavior. Given Nash’s personality, it is not surprising that he made the great discovery of the so-called equilibrium that bears his name. Nash abolished players–their emotions, their preferences, their entire psychology, all gone! Only the game remains. Games have solutions, people who play them do not count in arriving at these solutions. The man who was a mathematical genius and who lacked empathy and compassion was fortuitously positioned to arrive at that important formulation.

    The book is not just interesting, but sometimes gripping. The only minor flaw is that occasionally characters are introduced into the narrative out of the blue, followed by a strangely detailed description of theier appearance and behavior, even when it is not obvious why such a detailed description is necessary. This makes the book a bit choppy. But overall this is an enjoyable, provocative, and educational read. I recommend the book.



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