He was the most promising mathematician of his generation. While still a postgraduate student, John Forbes Nash Jnr made several major contributions to science, including the Nash Equilibrium, a concept that eventually got economics out of a theoretical hole (not that it made any difference to the price of the pint) and enabled modern theories of human behaviour to develop. The theorem was so far ahead of its time that most of his contemporaries missed it. His attacks on the deep problems of game theory, topology, and number theory astonished the scientific community.
He was offered permanent posts at two major universities and was already working at Princeton and the secretive military research corporation RAND. It looked as if a new star of the magnitude of Einstein had appeared. Then Nash went mad. Not a nervous breakdown, from which he might be expected to recover. Not manic-depression. What Nash had was paranoid schizophrenia. At the time, the best studies indicated that the recovery rate was close to zero. Nash was lost to the world.
There followed decades of anguish during which time Nash believed himself to be the left foot of God, a Palestinian refugee, the Emperor of Antarctica and a conduit for communication between alien beings and the great governments of the world. He was obsessed with numbers and his delusions included a belief that articles in the New York Times contained messages in a complex number-code. Those who met him, even his best friends, believed he was irrevocably lost to science and his family.
Fortunately, his wife Alicia stood by him. Once the violent period was over she took him in and gave him space to be free, to work through the delusions. She struggled to prevent the more bizarre therapies of the time - shock therapy, insulin therapy, lobotomy - on the grounds that there should be no impairment of his genius. She seemed to believe that he would eventually return.
And he did. This is the greatest strength of this otherwise merely worthy biography. Sylvia Nasar covers the mathematics and the academic politics deftly and her footnotes and bibliography are models of thoroughness, but underlying the scholarly qualities is a great fairytale of loss and recovery that ends in Nash's return to the academic world and the award of a Nobel Prize.
Ms Nasar paints a grim picture of Nash's early years. As a teenager he was already, in her view, in the grip of the personality disorders that would culminate in schizophrenia. He was obnoxious to his colleagues, arrogant to anyone he considered less gifted, snobbish, anti-Semitic, acutely class-conscious, racist and sexist, so much so that this reviewer thought for much of the book that the title must be ironic .
He formed a relationship with Eleanor Stier and when she gave birth to a son he refused to acknowledge him or pay any kind of child support until forced to do so by threat of legal proceedings. His relationships with men, which he seemed to regard as experimental rather than emotional, were destroyed by his tendency to despise them after a time. A remarkable aspect of his recovery was the virtual disappearance of these traits. Like King Lear, he emerges the other side of madness a gentler, humbler, more tolerant man.
Nash was not unique in his antipathies however, and A Beautiful Mind is an excellent study of the postwar American intellectual community, a society itself in the grip of neurosis. The scientific faculties were flooded with military money. The dominant atmosphere was secrecy. Senator McCarthy was on the rampage, his purges driven by paranoia about Russia's acquisition of the Abomb.
No one was immune. Nash lost his consultancy at RAND because of an alleged homosexual "experiment" - homosexuals being de facto "unreliable" according to government secrecy rules. Norbert Wiener, a giant in the application of mathematics to communications, was rejected by Harvard because he was Jewish. The most famous scientific victim was Robert Oppenheimer who nursed America's atomic bomb project but was "tainted" by left-wing friendships and thinking.
"Great wits," as John Dryden remarked, "are sure to madness near allied", and the genius stumbling through the thin partition between normality and insanity holds a strange fascination for the rest of us. A Beautiful Mind has all the elements of a classical tragedy played out against the backdrop of our modern obsession with science.
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