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)
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.