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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Brilliant Book about a Brilliant Mind

"'How could you,' Mackey asked, 'how could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof. . . how could you believe that extra terrestrials 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.'"

A Beautiful Mind
by Sylvia Nasar is the biography of John Forbes Nash. Nash was brilliant. (The movie was terrific, but often bore little resemblance to reality.) At twenty-one he had invented a theory of modern human behavior and his contributions to game theory would ultimately win him a Nobel Prize. As a young professor he solved some mathematical problems deemed "impossible" by other mathematicians. He also became insane. This most fascinating book is the story of his descent into schizophrenia and his sudden remission at age sixty-two.

Nash had that spark of genius reserved for the extraordinary few. He could visualize answers to problems that baffled others, often working out proofs later. He worked and learned not by absorbing what others had already accomplished but by rediscovering the concepts on his own. He was "compulsively rational," and envied the emotionless, considering thinking machines superior to humans. He remained aloof from the mundane and was described by his contemporaries as "queer," "spooky," and "isolated." Ironically, he was to revolutionize the theories of social cooperation and conflict. Unlike Von Neumann who had focused on the group, Nash, in his twenty-seven-page dissertation thesis proposed a theory for game "in which there was a possibility of mutual gain. His insight was that the game [economics] would be solved when every player independently chose his best responses to the other player's best strategies. . . a decentralized decision-making process could, in fact, be coherent."

Princeton probably deserves the Nobel medal as much as anyone for sticking with the genius and putting up with his bizarre behavior as does his family who often sacrificed a great deal in their efforts to help him. Whether an "ordinary" person would have received such special care is perhaps another issue.

What is truly ironic is that Nash's son suffers from the same condition as his father, but despite advances in pharmaceutical treatment for schizophrenia, his son has not displayed the signs of remission that brought his father back.

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