A Beautiful Mind

Sylvia Nasar

A Beautiful Mind.

The book for consideration this month is something of a departure from my usual selections.  It's a biography of the brilliant mathematician, John Forbes Nash, Jr., who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994.  Nash's story is incredible because he was (and to some extent still is) the victim of schizophrenia, a devastating mental illness that haunted him for over three decades.

Nash was a prodigy, a legend by the age of thirty, who dazzled the mathematical world by solving a series of deep problems deemed "impossible" by others  in the field.  At the height of his fame, however, Nash suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown, and began a harrowing descent into insanity.  He resigned his post at MIT, and slipped into a series of bizarre delusions, eventually all but forgotten by the outside world.  Nash became a dreamlike, ghostly figure at Princeton (where he'd earned his undergraduate degree), scrawling numerological messages on campus chalkboards.  Remarkably, however, he emerged from his madness to win world acclaim.  His story is told in a romanticized way in a current motion picture with the same name as Nasar's biography.

"Of course, very few people who exhibit 'a lifelong pattern of social isolation' and 'indifference to the attitudes and feelings of others' – the hallmarks of a so-called schizoid personality – possess great scientific or other creative talent.  And the vast majority of people with such strange and solitary temperaments never succumb to severe mental illness.  Instead, according to John G. Gunderson, a psychiatrist at Harvard, they tend 'to engage in solitary activities which often involve mechanical, scientific, futuristic and other non-human subjects ... [and] are likely to appear increasingly comfortable over a period of time by forming a stable but distant network of relationships with people around work tasks.'  Men of scientific genius, however eccentric, rarely become truly insane – the strongest evidence for the potentially protective nature of creativity.

Nash proved a tragic exception.  Underneath the brilliant surface of his life, all was chaos and contradiction: his involvements with other men; a secret mistress and a neglected illegitimate son; a deep ambivalence toward the wife who adored him, the university that nurtured him, even his country; and, increasingly, a haunting fear of failure.  And the chaos eventually welled up, spilled over, and swept away the fragile edifice of his carefully constructed life.

The first visible signs of Nash's slide from eccentricity into madness appeared when he was thirty and was about to be made a full professor at MIT.  The episodes were so cryptic and so fleeting that some of Nash's younger colleagues at that institution thought that he was indulging a private joke at their expense.  He walked into the common room one winter morning in 1959 carrying The New York Times and remarked, to no one in particular, that the story in the upper left-hand corner of the front page contained an encrypted message from inhabitants in another galaxy that only he could decipher...."

Nasar's powerful biography is a dramatic recreation of the life of John Nash, the genius who slipped into madness, and then inexplicably, miraculously reawakened to life and sanity, and the Nobel Prize.  Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.