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Beautiful Mind, A: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash : Reviewed

Author:Sylvia Nasar
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:Non-fiction, biography
Year of publication:1998

Biography of the brilliant mathematician, John Nash.
"How could you, a mathematician, believe that extraterrestrials were sending you messages?" the visitor from Harvard asked the West Virginian with the movie-star looks and Olympian manner.

"Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did," came the answer. "So I took them seriously."

In this workmanlike biography of the brilliant mathematician John Nash, Sylvia Nasar, a journalist, describes Nash's pioneering early mathematical discoveries, his decent into madness, and his eventual recovery and receipt of a Nobel Prize in Economics.

Along the way, Nasar describes:
  • How MIT and Princeton became celebrated research institutions.
  • How members of the mathematical community, many of whom had not been well treated by Nash, even when he was well, cooperated to make sure he survived when he was too ill to work.
  • The story of Alicia Nash, Nash's ex-wife who at tremendous cost to herself made sure that Nash was cared for throughout his life.
  • How the Nobel committee decided to award its prize in Economics to Nash (sounds like the process was as lovely as the making of sausage).
Nasar is much less successful at explaining the mathematics, Nash's as well as everyone else's. In fact, she seems to often resort to just listing mathematical disciplines and then saying that they are hard to do.

It reminded me of a visit to a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit we paid a bunch to visit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry last summer. The exhibit consisted of quite a few obviously very expensively produced wooden models of sketches of machines that Da Vinci drew in his journals. Next to each model was a large poster explaining in text and diagrams what the machine was supposed to do. I think that the word "genius" was used at least once, possibly several times, in each of these posters. However, the posters never actually stated whether the machine would actually do what Leonardo intended it to do.

Yeah, so Leonardo was a genius. And with that and, what is it now, $1.50, you can get on the subway.

The cool thing about Nash was that he was a genius who did truly work at his craft. He specifically chose problems that people he respected labeled as being difficult. (Nasar seems to look down on Nash's problem selection process, or perhaps she felt that Nash's colleagues did.) Once Nash had chosen a problem, he worked on it diligently and only gave up if he realized that the problem had already been solved.

The not so cool thing about Nash was that for the first nearly 70 years of his life, he was downright nasty to pretty much everyone he met or interacted with.
  • Does meanness go with genius?
    Based on my experiences with some exceptionally brilliant people, I don't believe it has to.
  • Does madness go with mathematical genius?
    Well, Godel was certainly suicidally nuts. Turing was driven that way, but seems to have been pretty sane for most of his life. Nash's explanation, that his mathematical intuitions "just appeared" in exactly the same way as the voices in his head, makes a lot of sense to me.
    I often know things will happen long before they do. And I am often accused of "jumping to conclusions", or "being overly pessimistic", or thinking differently. And family members who think that my ideas are overly controversial are certainly quick to let me know they think I'm crazy to express them.
  • Can madness be overcome through sheer will?
    Seems like maybe Nash has succeeded in doing this, but maybe it's only because of his genius that he did. In explaining his recovery, he talks about how he now post-processes his thoughts and kind of throws away the ones that seem not-normal.

A Beautiful Mind is not a book for young readers. It describes a brilliant man's entire life (and if his mind was indeed "beautiful", it seems to me that it was beautiful in the way it processed mathematics, not beautiful in its humanity or generosity), including his homosexual experimentation, his fathering of a child outside of wedlock, his refusal to marry or even care for his mistress, and his neglect of his child. However, it gives interesting insights into the functioning of the intellectual community (and it most certainly is a community) and the advantages and disadvantages of being an unusually gifted person in our society.


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Other reviews: Beautiful Mind, A: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash
 
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