November 24, 2012

A Beautiful Mind

The three weeks since I last posted is exactly how long it took me to read A Beautiful Mind. I calculated that it has something like 200,000 words, most of them hard. But it's a spellbinding book, divided into 5 main sections and 50 chapters with carefully adhered to and well-thought-out themes, and this made it readable for me. Barely.

Although I'd seen the movie and know the basic story, the biography is grippingly thorough and I basically kept reading to see what would happen next. The whole 20-chapter first section, subtitled "A Beautiful Mind," describes the first 25 or so years of John Nash's life, and the mathematics he did at MIT and Princeton. The next three sections describe his descent into madness and his long sojourn there. And the last section relates his amazing return to rationality.

What surprised me most is that Nash rarely did his homework. His incredible insights came in intuitive flashes, and then he would begin the long process of proving them mathematically, often after relentlessly pestering colleagues for the backgrounds of problems he was working on, rather than studying the literature. This isn't to say he didn't work. He did, constantly - thinking, thinking as he paced the hallways, and calculating for hours, weeks, sometimes years, on a problem that intrigued him, and that he had determined from careful inquiry was important enough to bother with.

Never was such a beautiful mind (one of his colleagues said this about him - "he has a beautiful mind,") encased in such a complex and often downright unpleasant personality. He was competitive, scheming, and petty, and an extreme penny-pincher. Arrogant doesn't begin to describe him. At one point he is quoted as saying something like "There are three true geniuses in mathematics today, me and ___ and ___, and I am probably the best." He would put students and colleagues down mercilessly: "I can't believe you're asking me that! What a stupid question! Don't you know anything?"

This would pretty well disqualify the average person from good society, but Nash's genius was so extreme that he kept on being accepted to a certain extent, although people found his bizarre behaviour highly uncomfortable. Even when his schizophrenia progressed to such an extent that most people were afraid of him, he retained champions who allowed him to hang around Princeton, kept finding funding for him, and tried to get him the best medical care.

I learned a little bit from this book about mathematics (not that there weren't many explanations, I just didn't get them), something about game theory (for which Nash won his Nobel Prize), and a lot about genius and mental illness. A riveting book, researched almost beyond a point I can comprehend, and beautifully written.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds fascinating. I still think about the movie regularly, even though I saw it many years ago already.