Book review - A Beautiful Mind Biography of John Nash

By Sylvia Nasar
Simon & Schuster
reviewed by Ed Green
Senior Research Officer
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

A classic view of drama is that it relies on the audience's willingness deliberately to suspend their disbelief in a story that is incredible by ordinary standards. Were it drama rather than biography, the story of John Nash would fit this view.

Nash earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at the normal age for earning an undergraduate degree. In his research as a graduate student and subsequently as an assistant professor, he made the sort of major contributions to pure mathematics and also to economic theory that tend to occur in these entire fields only a handful of times in each decade.

He was on the verge of being recognized as one of the world's leading mathematicians before he was 30 years old. Then, quite abruptly and at the very time when his mathematical career was flourishing, his behavior became so bizarre that he was involuntarily committed to a mental institution and was diagnosed as being schizophrenic. Although he had several temporary remissions during which he continued to make outstanding contributions to mathematics, he spent most of the next three decades as an entirely dysfunctional person. In fact, he plausibly would have wound up being a "street person" if it were not for the sustained, charitable care that he received from his ex-wife and, to some extent, from his former colleagues and their academic institutions. Remarkably, in the seventh decade of his life his mental condition has steadily and substantially improved.

Concurrently the full magnitude of his contribution to economic theory has become clear beyond a tight research community of specialists. This understanding has led to Nash being awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize for Economics jointly with two economists who had deepened one of his insights.

In choosing Nash as her subject, Sylvia Nasar has had to forgo the expository advantage that the biographer of an important scientist usually enjoys. Typically such a scientist not only has the idea that defines a new approach to a field, but he or she also champions that idea against the opposition of the conservative wing of a scientific discipline, mentors a group of followers who extend its influence and applicability, and in many cases founds a "school," comprising some university departments and scientific publications that advocate the new approach, that provides institutional support for the idea as an ongoing paradigm. Thus, chronicling the life of an important scientist tends to provide the biographer with the opportunity to teach readers a great deal about the science itself. Although Nash has had first-rate, creative ideas in several fields, though, he has played no significant role in their subsequent propagation or extension.

In this situation, Nasar has had to make a stricter choice than most scientific biographers face between focusing on the subject's personal story vs. the story of the development and impact of the subject's scientific work. She has chosen, understandably in view of the remarkable facts of Nash's life, to focus predominantly on his personal story. She has documented this story with painstaking care (especially in having interviewed hundreds of persons, including a high proportion of the most outstanding mathematicians of Nash's generation) and has told it with skill that makes the book hard to put down.

Beyond being a well-told story of an individual, the book has two general themes. They are not obviously related but turn out to be complementary. One theme has to do with the moral value of a person. Two arguments that run through much of Western thinking about this issue are that persons deserve moral respect because of their rationality and in reciprocity for their efforts to accord respect to others. But Nash as a young man seems to have been less consistent than most of us in his efforts to accord respect to others, and by his 30s he had ceased to be consistently rational in thought or action either, so these arguments do not go far in his case. Nasar reminds the reader again and again, yet without becoming gratingly repetitive, that Nash was a majestic person despite his flaws. She evidently finds in that majesty a ground for moral respect. From this perspective, she raises tough issues such as what is appropriate treatment of a mentally ill person who is disruptive in the workplace or the community; under what circumstances, if any, is involuntary commitment to psychiatric treatment justifiable; and particularly, can there ever be justification for involuntary administration of treatments such as shock therapy and psycho-active drugs that have extremely unpleasant and detrimental physical or psychological side effects. She succeeds in raising these questions in a skilful way that explores their complexities and does not impose preconceived answers. On this account, I can imagine this book being a useful case study in a university course in law or medical ethics.

The other general theme of the book is the relationship of a community-in this case, a scientific community-to a troubled member of that community. More accurately, two scientific communities-mathematics and economics-are described. The economics community is viewed indirectly, through the lens of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences where the award of the 1994 Economics Prize to Nash was made only after fierce and acrimonious internal dispute. Nasar brings this dispute to light in a tour de force of investigative reporting.

Although it is less flashy, Nasar's sustained examination of the culture that exists within outstanding mathematics departments and research institutes is an even more impressive feat. The picture that she draws of the life of a promising young mathematician certainly has some unattractive features. A very risky career, which the best people typically enter with ambitions of making breakthroughs that will almost certainly be beyond their reach, is conducted in a highly competitive atmosphere that exacerbates the serious psychological strain of adjusting those ambitions to reality. Until well into his or her career, the research mathematician's life is a sustained tournament akin to the selection process for star athletes and concert pianists, and where a cliquishness among the top competitors is tolerated that makes the tournament nastier than it apparently needs to be. This situation seems odd since, in contrast with athletic and musical-soloist virtuosity, mathematics is a field where the great discoveries largely reflect cumulative, collaborative effort. In view of Nasar's observation that many of the most significant contributors to mathematics lose their edge while they are still quite young, I wonder whether such a short period of creativity might be a byproduct of an environment that leads predictably to "burn-out," and whether the obvious advantage of such an environment in identifying talented individuals may be more than offset by more subtle disadvantages in eliciting their best contributions and teamwork. Nonetheless, at the same time I am also impressed by the number of generous, altruistic and sometimes courageous mathematicians who figure in various episodes of Nash's story.

In summary, this is an admirably researched and highly readable biography of someone whose life merits the substantial effort that the author has made to study it. It is well worth reading, both to learn about Nash himself and also in view of the general issues that the attempt to come to terms with him raises.

Updated: 14 Dec 2007