A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., Winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, 1994

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Overview

In this biography, Sylvia Nasar recreates the life of a mathematical genius whose brilliant career was cut short by schizophrenia and who, after three decades of devastating mental illness, miraculously recovered and was honored with a Nobel Prize. A Beautiful Mind traces the meteoric rise of John Forbes Nash, Jr., from his lonely childhood in West Virginia to his student years at Princeton, where he encountered Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and a host of other mathematical luminaries. At 21, the handsome, ambitious, eccentric graduate student invented what would become the most influential theory of rational human behavior in modern social science. Nash's contribution to game theory would ultimately revolutionize the field of economics. At 30, Nash was poised to take his dreamed-of place in the pantheon of history's greatest mathematicians. Then Nash suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown. Nasar details Nash's harrowing descent into insanity - his bizarre delusions that he was the Prince of Peace; his resignation from MIT, flight to Europe, and attempt to renounce his American citizenship; his repeated hospitalizations, from the storied McLean, where he came to know the poet Robert Lowell, to the crowded wards of a state hospital; his "enforced interludes of rationality" during which he was able to return briefly to mathematical research. At age 66, twin miracles - a spontaneous remission of his illness and the sudden decision of the Nobel Prize committee to honor his contributions to game theory - restored the world to him. Nasar recounts the bitter behind-the-scenes battle in Stockholm over whether to grant the ultimate honor in science to a man thought to be "mad." She describes Nash's current ambition to pursue new mathematical breakthroughs and his efforts to be a loving father to his adult son.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
John Nash was a prodigy. A star of the already prestigious Princeton and MIT mathematics departments in the 1950s, Nash was known for his ability to penetrate and solve "deep problems" -- those thought virtually unsolvable by his peers. His greatest contribution came with his advancement of game theory that revolutionized economics. A professor in his 20s, he was a leader in his field, a recognized genius.

And then his life and career collapsed. In 1959, at the age of 30, Nash had a schizophrenic breakdown that saw him disappear from the world of mathematics. He lost his job, his wife, and, seemingly, his sanity.

Sylvia Nasar's detailed biography of the man, his achievements, and his descent into mental illness is as affectionate towards its subject as it is probing into the often oddly parallel worlds of academia and mental hospitals, genius and madness.

Nasar stays focused on the life of Nash but manages to bring to it insights into the fine line between ill and well. Notably, her behind-the-scenes look at the Nobel Prize committee's consideration of Nash's work and their trepidation at awarding their prestigious prize to a "madman" is an interesting discussion.

Ultimately, the story has a bizarre and happy ending. At 66, Nash inexplicably recovered from his illness, returned to academia, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. (Greg Sewell)

Simon Singh
Sylvia Nasar...has written a touching account of a man caught between genius and madness....A Beautiful Mind tells a moving story and offers a remarkable look into the arcane world of mathematics and the tragedy of madness.
The New York Times Book Review
Richard Dooling
"Read no history: nothing but biography," Disraeli once wrote, "for that is life without theory." In A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar, an economics correspondent for The New York Times, presents the life "without theory" of John Forbes Nash Jr., a mathematical genius and inventor of theories of rational behavior, who was a wunderkind at Princeton when it was populated by the likes of Albert Einstein, John von Neumann and other 20th century luminaries. Nash's 26-page Ph.D. thesis, "Non-Cooperative Games" (written at Princeton, while he was still in his early 20s), eventually won him a Nobel Prize in economics in 1994, but only after his career was interrupted by a 30-year bout with paranoid schizophrenia.

Disraeli's admonition is well taken here, because Nasar's story of Nash's career presents a case study in the mysterious relationship between genius and madness, and a possible metaphor for a civilization that has seen the miraculous achievements of 20th century science overshadowed at times by the madness of nuclear war -- a tale that could have been smothered by historical or psychiatric theories.

A Beautiful Mind chronicles Nash's ascent to the Olympian heights of Princeton, the infamous postwar RAND think tank and MIT, where Nash mingled with many of the geniuses who had arguably "won" World War II by applying math, science and game theories to the deadly arts of nuclear war. Despite his condescending manner and personality quirks -- Nash was known for incessantly whistling Bach's Little Fugue, chewing empty coffee cups and having notoriously complicated romantic relationships with both men and women -- he flourished in the elite hierarchy of first-rate mathematicians. Most of his peers agreed with the eminent geometrician Mikhail Gromov, who called Nash "the most remarkable mathematician of the second half of the century."

In a profession that "placed a certain premium on eccentricity and outrageousness" and in which "a lack of social graces was considered part and parcel of being real mathematicians," Nash was more outrageous, eccentric and lacking in social skills and emotional attachments than most. But no matter how outlandish his behavior, Nash survived, even excelled, despite his haughty, sometimes cruel treatment of loved ones and colleagues.

Then, when Nash was barely 30 and about to be made a full professor at MIT, his friends and fellow mathematicians witnessed a "strange and horrible metamorphosis" that began when Nash dressed as an infant at a New Year's Eve party in 1958, and then crossed the line two weeks later when he slouched into the common room at MIT with a copy of The New York Times, claiming that "abstract powers from outer space, or perhaps it was foreign governments, were communicating with him" through the newspaper. For the next 30 years of his life, Nash -- or rather the ghost of Nash -- haunted the campuses where he had previously reigned as a genius, until he emerged from his delusions and accepted the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994.

Nasar shows admirable restraint in presenting the seamier details of Nash's private life; she manages to stay focused on telling the story of a genius who became a schizophrenic, without overreaching and attempting explanations. Instead of facile theories, the reader enjoys wonder and astonishment -- frightened and intrigued by the intimate juxtaposition of genius and mental illness in a single beautiful mind. Nash said it best when a teaching associate asked him how he could believe that aliens were sending him coded messages. He responded: "Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously."
Salon

New York Times
Dazzling...reads like a fine novel.
New York Newsday
A triumph of intellectual biography.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Nasar has written a notable biography of mathematical genius John Forbes Nash (b. 1928), a founder of game theory, a RAND Cold War strategist and winner of a 1994 Nobel Prize in economics. She charts his plunge into paranoid schizophrenia beginning at age 30 and his spontaneous recovery in the early 1990s after decades of torment. He attributes his remission to will power; he stopped taking antipsychotic drugs in 1970 but underwent a half-dozen involuntary hospitalizations. Born in West Virginia, the flamboyant mathematical wizard rubbed elbows at Princeton and MIT with Einstein, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener. He compartmentalized his secret personal life, shows Nasar, hiding his homosexual affairs with colleagues from his mistress, a nurse who bore him a son out of wedlock, while he also courted Alicia Larde, an MIT physics student whom he married in 1957. Their son, John, born in 1959, became a mathematician and suffers from episodic schizophrenia. Alicia divorced Nash in 1963, but they began living together again as a couple around 1970. Today Nash, whose mathematical contributions span cosmology, geometry, computer architecture and international trade, devotes himself to caring for his son. Nasar, an economics correspondent for The New York Times, is equally adept at probing the puzzle of schizophrenia and giving a nontechnical context for Nash's mathematical and scientific ideas.
Library Journal
Those who enjoyed the compelling story of John Nash as presented in the Academy Award-winning film may wish to know more about the real mathematical genius. This audiobook will give the listener a deeper insight into Nash's mind a mind that fired with flashes of intuition, that saw the answers first and then worked out their proofs, a mind that came to believe that aliens from outer space were sending him messages. A Beautiful Mind tells the story of a man who faces the greatest foe of that genius schizophrenia. It's about the horrors that Nash endured at the hands of the psychiatric profession and in the grip of his delusions. It also relates how Nash was helped by his colleagues at Princeton and his wife, Alicia, and how perhaps this stability and sheltering care allowed him to rationalize away his delusions. An enthralling tale, masterfully performed by Edward Herrmann. Highly recommended for all libraries. Theresa Connors, Arkansas Tech Univ., Russellville Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
A dramatic and moving biography of a mathematical genius whose brilliant career was cut short by schizophrenia, and who, after three decades of devastating mental illness, miraculously recovered and was honored with a Nobel Prize.
Business Week
A staggering feat of writing and reporting.
Wall Street Journal
Powerfully affecting.
Michael J. Mandel
A fascinating account of creativity barely under control, of a mathematical genius who was driven by -- and eventually overwhelmed by -- his own innter demons. A staggering feat of writing and reporting.
Business Week
The New York Times
Dazzling...reads like a fine novel.
The Boston Globe
Superbly written and eminently fascinating...it might be compared to a Rembrandt.
New York Newsday
A triumph of intellectual biography.
Kirkus Reviews
A biography about a mathematical genius who suffered from schizophrenia, miraculously recovered, and later received the Nobel Prize in 1994. Nasar, an economics correspondent for The New York Times, opens her book with the spectral image of John Forbes Nash Jr., who haunted the Princeton University campus where he had once been a promising graduate student. Nash, the son of conservative southern parents, rose rapidly through the ranks of equally brilliant mathematicians during the '50s. Then, at the age of 31 and at the height of his career, Nash experienced the first of many breakdowns and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nasar attempts to write an ambitious biography. It is, on one level, an in-depth look at this mysterious figure and his milieu and, on another level, a meditation on the nature of genius and madness. On the first level, Nasar succeeds, providing a sense of the rarefied and competitive atmosphere of mathematics departments in the nation's leading universities during the height of the Cold War. The peripheral characters of the book are vividly drawn, and episodes in Nash's life are painted with an extraordinary attention to detail. She also presents advanced mathematical theories in an accessible and palatable way. However, her efforts to get at the heart of Nash's disease fall short. A great deal of speculation is made about his early childhood, his homosexual liaisons, and his arrest for solicitation in this pre-Stonewall era. And even more is made of his bizarre and generally antisocial behavior before the breakdown. By the time Nasar reaches Nash's first psychotic episode, the reader is struck, not by his genius, but by his maladjusted behavior. By theend of the book, Nash remains as much of an enigma as he was before. Impressively researched and detailed, but still fails to shed much light on the mysteries of genius and insanity.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780571197187
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 1/28/1999
  • Pages: 464

Meet the Author

A former economics correspondent for The New York Times, Sylvia Nasar is the Knight Professor of Journalism at Columbia University. She lives in Tarrytown, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

John Forbes Nash, Jr. mathematical genius, inventor of a theory of rational behavior, visionary of the thinking machine had been sitting with his visitor, also a mathematician, for nearly half an hour. It was late on a weekday afternoon in the spring of 1959, and, though it was only May, uncomfortably warm. Nash was slumped in an armchair in one corner of the hospital lounge, carelessly dressed in a nylon shirt that hung limply over his unbelted trousers. His powerful frame was slack as a rag doll's, his finely molded features expressionless. He had been staring dully at a spot immediately in front of the left foot of Harvard professor George Mackey, hardly moving except to brush his long dark hair away from his forehead in a fitful, repetitive motion. His visitor sat upright, oppressed by the silence, acutely conscious that the doors to the room were locked. Mackey finally could contain himself no longer. His voice was slightly querulous, but he strained to be gentle. "How could you," began Mackey, "how could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof...how could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world? How could you...?"

Nash looked up at last and fixed Mackey with an unblinking stare as cool and dispassionate as that of any bird or snake. "Because," Nash said slowly in his soft, reasonable southern drawl, as if talking to himself, "the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously."

The young genius from Bluefield, West Virginia handsome, arrogant, and highly eccentric burst onto the mathematical scene in 1948. Over the next decade, a decade as notable for its supreme faith in human rationality as for its dark anxieties about mankind's survival, Nash proved himself, in the words of the eminent geometer Mikhail Gromov, "the most remarkable mathematician of the second half of the century." Games of strategy, economic rivalry, computer architecture, the shape of the universe, the geometry of imaginary spaces, the mystery of prime numbers all engaged his wide-ranging imagination. His ideas were of the deep and wholly unanticipated kind that pushes scientific thinking in new directions.

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Table of Contents

Prologue............................................................11
Part One: A Beautiful Mind
Part Two: Separate Lives
Part Three: A Slow Fire Burning
Part Four: The Lost Years

Part Five: The Most Worthy
Notes..............................................................389
Select Bibliography................................................435
Acknowledgments....................................................439
Index..............................................................441

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 42 )
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(31)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 39 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2001

    A Beautiful Book!

    As a person interested in biography, history and psychology, I found this book to be well-written and frequently poignant. Some biographies degrade into a stiff, lifeless recitation of history, but this story is at turns interesting, insightful and compelling. It's been a long time since I have enjoyed a biography this much.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2002

    Fantastic Book-It reminds me of another Beautiful Mind!

    Thank God someone has the courage to write a hopeful and honest portrayal of someone who is a survivor of a severe mental illness. It is a rare thing indeed to read something at all positive about the mentally ill. Bravo to the courageous and skillful writer of this book and her subject of study, Mr. Nash. Another wonderful new book to read which also gives hope to the mentally ill and the survivors of mental illness is the beautifully written new autobiography by Tracy Harris entitled 'The Music of Madness'. I highly reccomend both books if you want to be inspired and enlightened.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2002

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

    The journey we call life is often filled with tensions and emotions which are a result of those tensions. These things are the spices of life unless they loom so large in relation to our logical mind that they become bitter waters. A trial it is, then, to have tensions so great or emotions so compelling that one is unable to live a 'normal' life. It is interesting to see inside that space to which the logical mind is relegated when all other spaces are filled with the darkness of mental illness. Peering out of the logical into the surrounding unfathomable darkness we readers can almost get a sense of what life with an unrelenting mental illness is like. The inspiration for us all is in the character's finding of the light and the regaining of the control of that dark side of the mind. Another such journey from darkness into light is told by Tracy Harris in her book, 'The Music of Madness'. In Ms. Harris' case the journey is of a brilliant Musician whose life deconstructs because of Mental illness and its tormentors. It is at once chilling, fascinating, frightening, and like Nash she triumphs through sheer strength of will. Both stories are inspirational, and both end up letting the reader feel that he or she just might have hope after all, no matter how high the mountain, or how deep the sea.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2003

    More detailed and less romantic than the movie

    To begin with a cliche, I enjoyed the book more than the movie. Nasar did a great deal of research in compiling this book. Nash is described as a lot more strange and somewhat more boring than he is in the movie, and Nasar's description is probably more accurate. I think Hollywood did a disservice to schizophrenics by depicting the disease as a lot more romantic than it really is. Nasar has an easy writing style, is insightful, and pays great attention to detail. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2002

    A Wonderful Read

    I bought this book because I became obsessed with the hyp for the movie and the man. I never expected to like the book as much as I did. Could not put it down. Even reading through the mathematical problems was easy. I was so disappointed when I finished it. I will not forget this book for a long time!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2002

    Enlightening

    Excellent movie. Great acting on all cast members. Definitely portrayed John Nash's life very well. Gave much enlightenment on a difficult disease. A positive approach. Helped to understand a disease that a person has to carry inside.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2002

    MOVIE DOES NOT TELL TRUE STORY

    AFTER SEEING THE MOVIE 'A BEAUTIFUL MIND' TWO TIMES, I WAS ANXIOUS TO READ THE BOOK. THE BOOK TELLS THE TRUE STORY OF JOHN NASH JR. WHO IN ACTUALITY I FOUND VERY DIFFICULT TO LIKE. HE IS A CRUEL PERSON IN MANY WAYS, WHICH THE MOVIE DOES NOT PORTRAY. THE INCESSANT MATHEMATICAL DISCUSSIONS, I FOUND DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND. IT IS ALSO HARD FOR ME TO FATHOM, THAT JOHN WAS NOT DIAGNOSED AS MENTALLY ILL UNTIL AGE 30.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2001

    Amazing book

    A must read book, it is an extraordinary story, and it really portray well the life of John Nash that reader sympathizes with Nash, very touching book and also explains the narrow line between a genius and a madman.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 22, 2009

    Amazing Book.

    Amazing life of one of the most prominent genius, the author knows how to mix the scientific approach of a genius, with skills, social life, it is a very honest life of one of the most important minds in Mathematics, paradoxically with personal issues or eccentric moments about this great person and the people that surrounds him. Makes specific historical remarks about Newton, Einstein, but then tell us how human is Dr Nash and how sensible he is with his own environment.

    it is full of interesting details, his theory about games and probability is not as interesting as his personal life, and the way he had to deal with society, I appreciate all the effort to do this book, it took a lot of time to do it as I can see, from the psychological view, scientific and academic it is worth it. I am still learning so much from someone who wanted to share this gift with the world, it talks about religion too and this thin line between "craziness" and "genaility" Havent seen the movie yet but I will.

    Intense of a private life with similarities in the life of other genius, it is very well written, you are not going to believe all this details in just one Person, and how other's started to accept this gifted mind and how this gifted mind accepted his own self, it is wroth it... buy it now.

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  • Posted June 3, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A Beautiful Biography

    There is warmth and humanity about this book that makes it must reading. John Nash himself, although never dull, is not particularly sympathetic even in the best of times. Nevertheless, as he slips into madness his peers continue to recognize him as the genius who made several important contributions to mathematics. They tolerate his eccentricities and offer him employment despite his debilitating illness. Ultimately, too, his family reconciles with him. Not only is this is an extraordinary journey into the rarified world of higher mathematics but it's a journey into mental illness, its fallout and treatment. PS, the movie, which I loved, pales beside the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2005

    Great book

    This book leads you inside the guy's mind.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2003

    A Beautiful Mind-A Complex Life

    What I like most about the abriged version is that it doesn't cut too much out. In fact, it adds something to the movie by explaining to the reader what the movie couldn't touch on. I would suggest to anyone who gets this-to make sure that they have enough time to finish it. (And yes, it is that involved).

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2003

    Credibility?

    I read this book for a school assignment on credibility, and although it's a great story, according to the criteria the teacher gave, this book is full of opinions, loaded words, and fallacies. However, it's still a great story of triumph.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2003

    A Tour through the Mind of a Genius

    An intellectually stimulating book! A guide through the mind of an absolute genius. A masterpiece of a biography.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2002

    GREAT

    i think that this is a great book its about the real people who can triumph over a serious disease

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2002

    A non-fiction about a mathematician for non-mathematicians

    I found this book extremely engaging, but its most important contribution may be introducing mathematical concepts and life as a mathematician to those not trained in mathematics. A Beautiful Mind gives mathematics a human face.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2002

    A cartoon movie vs. the works of the masters

    This is one of the greatest biographys I have ever read. Sylvia Nasar has certainly done her homework. The 100's and 100's of hours she must have dedicated to research. While I tremendously enjoyed the movie, it is like comparing a cartoon to reading the works of a master. My only 2 negatives on the book are : 1) Too much time is dedicated to mini-bios on characters within the book, and 2) if you have not had mathematics beyond Algebra II/Trig, you may very well get lost in a few equations and explanations. All-in-all a great work, a dedicated writer, and thank you Russell, for the great job you did in the movie.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2002

    BORING

    Although I read an extremely wide range of 'intelligent' books, I found this one very boring. (I am in a book club at work and the books that I like are always deemed too hard, too heavy or too intellectual by other members of the club.) The writing style of this book is dense. The main character's obsession with math is dry and boring. And, to be quite frank, the main character is neither a likeable or an engaging individual. I think that because this book was made into a movie, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon and raving about how great the book is. I never saw the movie--maybe I should! I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone. In fact, I didn't even finish reading it.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2002

    A rare accord of a math genious

    A great story about what this man has gone through in life. A true treasure to ftind and read. A wonderful story. I simply had to stay up late to finish this wonderful; book. A great one at that!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2002

    BEAUTIFULLY HANDLED

    DESPITE THE FACT THAT THIS BOOK IS MERE INK ON PAPER, IT OVERFLOWS WITH COLOR. RICH AND LAYERED, STUNNING AND UNFORGETTABLE. RON HOWARD'S FILM MAKES A TERRIFIC (ALBEIT FAR LESS COMPLEX) COMPANION PIECE.

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