on 8 July 2002
Nasar provides an exhaustive account of the life of John F. Nash, Jr, who is perhaps one of the great geniuses of the past century, and could have been greater still if paranoid schizophrenia had not intervened.
What is so important about this work is that Nasar is equally skilled in communicating the extent of Nash's illness and the significance of his battle against it as she is in communicating the extent of his mathematical genius. She does not simply examine Nash, but also the effect that Nash had on those around him, whether positive or negative. Although it is blatantly obvious that Nash is a hero of Nasar's, she is certainly not afraid to criticise specific actions or attitudes of his when she feels that such criticism is justified. Perhaps the most potent examples of this occur when Nash's personal life is described in a large amount of detail. This produces a tremendously balanced, no-holds-barred, biography.
The fact that this book shares its title with Ron Howard's latest film is misleading to some extent, since this book devles much deeper than a two-hour film ever could. So, even if you have seen the film, as I had, you will be shocked and captivated by new revelations about Nash, and come away with a much more complete picture of the man. The sheer volume of the footnotes at the end of the book is a testament both to its accuracy and the effort that Nasar invested in it.
on 21 March 2002
I went with dubious mind to see the film. Being a psychology student i could see a certain appeal to its core subject however. I was blown away.
Both accurate and moving, the book provides a detailed and facinating account of a great, yet flawed man. This adds a human element to the events told. In fact 'told' is too simple a word to describe the painstaking lengths that must have gone into this accomplishment.
The book was a joy to read from start to finish, and ANYONE with a passing interest in the way the mind works or how genius is attained, should certainly read this book as soon as possible.
Cannot be higher recommended!
on 8 August 2011
This book, which inspired a motion picture, is arguably most important for things that have nothing to do with MeTZelf, like mathematics, mathematicians, and universities. It is a very thick book, apparently well-researched, yet written to read like a novel, occasionally to the point of stretching credibility. How would the author know what the weather was like on a particular day, or how somebody felt?
Nash's purported schizophrenia has attracted enormous media attention, certainly more than his work, which few people understand anyway, or his colleagues, who are little-known outside of their field. Yet to me the most interesting part is not his "schizophrenia," but what Nash was like before it started.
Now I have a dilemma. Firstly, I don't want to "diagnose" somebody, anybody, let alone someone I don't even know personally, though after 450 pages I do feel like I know Nash personally. Secondly, I myself am most wary of pseudo-medical labels, which seem to legitimize professions for which I have no use. But the author's description of Nash is so thorough and consistent, I can't help noticing that it perfectly fits what nowadays is called Asperger.
Not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or the DSM convince me of this, but the zillions of contacts I have (had) with parents and spouses of (usually) boys and men with strikingly similar personalities. The words Asperger or autism appear nowhere in the book. Either Nash really does fit this pattern and the author in her excellence unwittingly described it, or she patterned the Nash character after someone else who is Asperger. Read it and tell me if you don't agree.
The author reports that at one time Nash told friends that he was thinking of experimenting with (recreational) drugs, but nobody knows whether he actually did. She does not draw a connection between this and the onset of Nash's behaviors attributed to "schizophrenia." It fits neatly into my theory that most cases of this type of bizarre behavior are triggered by narcotics, whether taken illegally or by prescription (all psychiatric drugs are narcotics). Once knocked off balance, the delicate neurotransmission may take many years and even decades to settle down again. Psychiatric (mis)treatments could have further exasperated the disarray of Nash's nervous system and delayed its return to normal. If he ever confirms that he used the (illegal) drugs, my theory will be supported. I haven't asked him, because if I were he, I wouldn't answer such a question.
Never mind the lies in the movie. The book states clearly that Nash took no more neuroleptics once released from the "hospital." He spent most of three decades wandering about undrugged. Lo and behold, eventually something happened that never happens to people who stay psychiatrized. Nash's behavior stabilized enough for him to return to a somewhat normal life, and give a coherent speech during a Nobel prize ceremony.
Although the author acknowledges that neuroleptics cause tardive dyskinesia, she overlooks them as the explanation of why the vast majority of other people considered schizophrenic never recover. Quoting research, she concludes that Nash's experience is rare but not unique. She fails to mention whether the (few) others who do recover, like Nash, are the ones who manage to stay out of psychiatry and away from its extremely destructive (mis)treatments.
Nash's good fortune is that he was offered board and care by his ex-wife, Alicia, and tolerated by his university. This enabled him to stay out of psychiatry. It must be excruciatingly painful to Alicia that she was unable to do the same for their son, who, like Albert Einstein's youngest son and millions of people of less well-known parentage, became stuck in psychiatry forever. The author is evasive about it, perhaps because the book is not about the son, or perhaps because only someone who has experienced it can know the formidable task Alicia took upon herself, and the pressures which compelled her to give up on another John Nash.
A Beautiful Mind is a beautiful book.
on 9 March 2003
The size of this book may seem overpowering, but do not, as I did, think it will be too cumbersome to just sit and read. Nash's world of mathematicians grabbed me immediately as they were all such interesting characters. I was intrigued to read of names I'd heard like Einstein - and see how these geniuses fitted together. The author has researched endlessly about the mathematical theorists, and explains their theories in a layperson's terms. But the star of the book is of course, John Nash. He is not always likeable, but he is always fascinating. The title sums him up perfectly. His "beautiful mind" was in his youth, above the rest of us, and he needed praise and stimulation. I was glad to learn more of the games theory which was covered in the film, and feel I have learned something valuable from the explanations. Nash's breakdown is described without sentimentality so that the reader feels even more the subject, knowing his potential. Schizophrenia has become more undertandable for me now I have read about a real person, and I can feel the torment he must have felt trying to suppress the delusions. This is one of the best biographies I have ever read, and recommend it to anyone who likes to feel they have learned something from their reading.
on 9 July 2004
This biography of the Nobel Prize winner and schizophrenic mathematical genius John Forbes Nash surprisingly brings to mind the main character in Dostoyevsky's great novel, "Crime and Punishment." Like the intense, reclusive student, Raskolnikov, Nash in this biography comes across as an extremely anti-social and arrogant young man, convinced that his genius gives him certain rights and freedoms beyond the petty restrictions, rules, and manners that govern normal human conduct.
But whereas Dostoyevsky's character commits a murder, Nash's main offense is merely to be an arrogant and boorish lout, forever trying to show off to his fellow students at Princeton. When he is later struck down by mental illness after achieving so much so young, we can't help feeling there is an element of hubris involved.
Nash also fits into the popular paradigm of the lop-sided genius, the person of incredible talents who can't deal with the simpler aspects of daily life. As in the case of the notoriously absent-minded Albert Einstein -- whom Nash meets in the book -- or the equally eccentric Isaac Newton, we somehow feel reassured that these supreme geniuses have their weaknesses. For all these reasons, this is a story that resonates on a mythic and psychological level. We keep rooting for Nash, but also secretly look forward to him tripping up. This reflects the ambivalent attitude to the sciences that most people have -- we are both intrigued by new discoveries but afraid of their ramifications.
Around the age of 30, Nash's quest to find greater meaning in the Universe sparked off his insanity as he started to discern complex codes implanted by extra-terrestrials in the random occurrence of certain letters of the alphabet in daily life. But, although this is essentially a tragedy of a brilliant mind struck down by schizophrenia, it is nevertheless one with a happy ending. After paying his dues for his genius and arrogance, Nash gradually recovers and receives his apotheosis in the 1994 Nobel Prize for economics.
Movies and books are radically different media, so don't expect this to read like the recent Oscar-winning movie that it inspired. The expansiveness of the written word allows for much more detail to emerge as well as countless digressions and forays into the worlds of science and mathematics that the movie had no space for. So, if you saw the movie and loved it, this biography still has plenty to offer.
on 10 February 2004
I have not seen the film by Ron Howard and I must admit that I knew nothing of John Nash prior to reading this book. My main reason for reading A Beautiful Mind, was an interest in mental illnesses that impede with such catastrophic affect upon people's lives, an interest that stems from reading several books by Oliver Sacks. In this sense I misinterpreted the book's main objective.
Sylvia Nasar's aim has been to document Nash's life from his earliest childhood, and she does so with such a sense of time and place that the reader is immediately enthralled. It is not, as I had assumed before reading it, a book that sets out to expose a hidden truth of Schizophrenia or Mathematics. It is the story of a man whose character and ideas struggled to find a place in the world; a genius who was forced to live through the most debilitating of mental illnesses, to emerge to belated credit for his achievements. Although Mathematics is a central feature of the story, Nasar only touches on the substance of Nash's theories, focussing instead on their impact on the Mathematics and Economics communities, and his own mind. The same is true of Nasar's approach to Schizophrenia; there are no real medical descriptions of the illness, but her depictions of life for the schizophrenic and those around them, has a depth and clarity that goes beyond any medical diagnosis. The undertones of predisposition and of defining the borders between illness and health are carefully managed throughout the book and leave the reader, if not wiser, certainly more open-minded.
The volume of research, (easily assessed by a quick flick through the notes), Nasar invested in her book is truly impressive and the result is a biography that deserves the acclaim it has won. From the bizarre world of the Princeton Mathematics department, to life behind the guarded doors of the RAND institute, to struggles of family life and commitment to mental hospitals, the book is thorough, passionate, humorous and above all elegant.
Even if, like myself you have little or no knowledge of John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, will remain accessible, hugely enjoyable and enlightening, something for which you will want to free up some time.
on 29 May 2013
As an economist, I was eager to get stuck into a biography of John Nash and it was a pleasant surprise that there was a nice balance between the more technical details of Nash's work and the biographical detailsof his life, relationships and descent and remission from schizophrenia. Admittedly, it does take a short while to get goind, exploring Nash's parents' backgrounds and his early life, but it's all for a reason.
Nasar does presuppose a limited understanding of mathmatics, and some of the more abstract concepts may have been somewhat lost on me, but that didn't deter me int he slightest. The comprehensive referencing that Naser provides is reassuring that the account will be broadly accurate.
I didn't find the writing unduly flattering to Nash's achievements and indeed, ragarding his personal life it did seem to take a "warts and all" approach, giving the subject the objective respect it undoubtedly deserves. Needless to say, the biography did shed a great deal of light on the enigmatic character that is Nash, and I have re-read the book and have no doubt that I will again in the future.
As for comparisons against the film - I am a big fan of the motion-picture inspired by this biography, but rest assured that it isn't an accurate account of Nash's life and work, merely an entertaining fictionalisation of it.
on 6 March 2002
I watched the movie and liked it, but reading the book was really a pleasure. I reccomend it to everybody who is far from the world of the sciences, but is interested in receiving some basic knowledge about the life of a whole generation of Amercian scientists.
on 30 March 2002
Some of the earlier mathematical mistakes started to raise a few questions in this reader's mind. On page 39 Fermat is attributed as being a co-inventor of calculus along with Newton. (this usually attributed to Leibnitz); and somewhere not much further on the author talks about mathematical exams with a median score of zero. This is impossible without negative marks, not a common practice in the UK , but (one learns later), practice in the US.
Leaving aside the mathematics, this is a superb biography of one man's struggle with, and triumph over, schizophrenia, against a background of almost a half a century of changing medical, institutional and social attitudes and responses to mental illness.
One might wonder how a mathematician, disciplined to logical thought, could suffer from delusion? It appears Nash spent half a lifetime trying to render the delusional rational and his saving seems to have arisen by the act of rational thought that it just wasn't worth the bother.
Much deeper and more disturbing than the film.
on 29 May 2014
After the abominable feature film on his life that misrepresents and sanitises to the point of defamation, I had been yearning to read this biography of this living genius for years. Much to my relief, there is much I found to applaud in Nasar's granular recounting of John Nash's life and times.
Not least of its victories is that it does not shy away from exposing the unpleasant edifices of his personality: abandoned children, arrogance, entitlement, elitism, sexism: it's all here. Then there is his own hypocritical acting out of his sexuality: inwardly bisexual, outwardly heterosexual which Nasar perceptibly enough manages to mesh within a historical and cultural context. In fifty bite-sized chapters, she summarises countless testimonies, speeches and interviews of all those who have lived, tolerated, hated, or as much as brushed or heard of Nash. While some of her academic summation veers into dangerous territory of personality speculation and convenient joining-the-dots, there is an understatement in writing that grounds the often hialrious certainty. While very diffuse, Nasar is just-about able to give us a rare peek into a particular kind of focussed derangement of idea-infested individuals like Nash and how valued his "original" thinking and problem solving was, both for critics and collaborators. She evokes the sequence of institutional and city scapes over the years with the flourish of a seasoned novelist, although her similar attempts at sketching the multitude of humanity (and literally, their grandmother!) who as-much-as brushed Nash is often baffling and sag the book with un-needed detours.
Another high point of the book is that it offers the reader a delicious sideways ingress into the world of academia and its mores. With research and educational institutions erected in post-war America to facilitate advancement in defence and nuclear armament, and Nash having the opportunity and talent to spearhead some of the panels feeding directly or tortuously into these initiatives, the politics and atmosphere amongst the intelligentsia is revealing. Equally instructive is the bookmarking of various intellectual fences being scaled to newer pastures of no-return: the instatement of rigour and mathematics into the discipline of economics, the repercussions of which we are all privy to in this information age; the newer layers of axioms in disciplines of mathematics; the management of schizophrenia both pre-and post-use of anti-psychotic drugs (insulin-shock therapy!) and finally, the workings of the clandestine Nobel Prize committee. It's testament to Nasar's research that the book manages to inform on all these milieus are as alive as the chief mortal.
My one issue with the book is that while it's filled-to-gills with a reconstruction of John-Nash-the-person-perceived-by-others, his work in mathematics gets an unimpressive treatment. The embedding theorem, the Nash equilibrium, singularity theory and differential equations: they are all described in a cryptic and presumptively high-handed manner, thrown at the unsuspecting reader with no simplification. This could have better dealt with by a paragraph or two of context setting in accessible language of the parent fields to inflame some curiosity among the non-mathematically inclined readers. Nasar does attempt something to this effect half-heartedly when explaining the Game Theory but that's it. Nash's work, other than his mental illness, have been the key qualification for this biography, and watching this aspect not as carefully dealt as his other facets of life stop this from being a perfect biographical account. Still, it's a comprehensive, layered and balanced account of a living genius who continues to work and contribute to the world. Well worth a read.