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

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

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by Sylvia Nasar

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In this powerful and dramatic biography Sylvia Nasar vividly recreates the life of a mathematical genius whose career was cut short by schizophrenia and who, after three decades of devastating mental illness, miraculously recovered and was honored with a Nobel Prize.

“How could you, a mathematician, believe that extraterrestrials were sending you messages…  See more details below


In this powerful and dramatic biography Sylvia Nasar vividly recreates the life of a mathematical genius whose career was cut short by schizophrenia and who, after three decades of devastating mental illness, miraculously recovered and was honored with a Nobel Prize.

“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.”

Thus begins the true story of John Nash, the mathematical genius who was a legend by age thirty when he slipped into madness, and who—thanks to the selflessness of a beautiful woman and the loyalty of the mathematics community—emerged after decades of ghostlike existence to win a Nobel Prize for triggering the game theory revolution. The inspiration for an Academy Award–winning movie, Sylvia Nasar’s now-classic biography is a drama about the mystery of the human mind, triumph over adversity, and the healing power of love.

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Editorial Reviews

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)

New York Times
Dazzling...reads like a fine novel.
New York Newsday
A triumph of intellectual biography.
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."

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
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.
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.
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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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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What People are saying about this

Timothy Ferris
Every once in a while there appears a book on science that mirrors the splendor of its subject. Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind is such a book -- an eloquent, heartbreaking, and heartwarming tale.
Oliver Sacks
A splendid book, deeply interesting and extraordinarily moving, remarkable for its sympathetic insights into both genius and schizophrenia.
David Herbert Donald
A brilliant book -- at once a powerful and moving biography of a great mathematical genius and an important contribution to American intellectual history.

Meet the Author

Sylvia Nasar is the author of the bestselling A Beautiful Mind, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. She is the John S. and James. L Knight Professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

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