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A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash [Paperback]

Sylvia Nasar
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (260 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 4 2001

How could you, a mathematician, believe that extraterrestrials were sending you messages?" the visitor from Harvard asked the West Virginian with the movie-star looks and Olympian manner.

"Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did," came the answer. "So I took them seriously."

Thus begins the true story of John Nash, the mathematical genius who was a legend by age thirty when he slipped into madness, and who -- thanks to the selflessness of a beautiful woman and the loyalty of the mathematics community -- emerged after decades of ghostlike existence to win a Nobel Prize and world acclaim. The inspiration for a major motion picture, Sylvia Nasar's award-winning biography is a drama about the mystery of the human mind, triumph over incredible adversity, and the healing power of love.


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Stories of famously eccentric Princetonians abound--such as that of chemist Hubert Alyea, the model for The Absent-Minded Professor, or Ralph Nader, said to have had his own key to the library as an undergraduate. Or the "Phantom of Fine Hall," a figure many students had seen shuffling around the corridors of the math and physics building wearing purple sneakers and writing numerology treatises on the blackboards. The Phantom was John Nash, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of his generation, who had spiraled into schizophrenia in the 1950s. His most important work had been in game theory, which by the 1980s was underpinning a large part of economics. When the Nobel Prize committee began debating a prize for game theory, Nash's name inevitably came up--only to be dismissed, since the prize clearly could not go to a madman. But in 1994 Nash, in remission from schizophrenia, shared the Nobel Prize in economics for work done some 45 years previously.

Economist and journalist Sylvia Nasar has written a biography of Nash that looks at all sides of his life. She gives an intelligent, understandable exposition of his mathematical ideas and a picture of schizophrenia that is evocative but decidedly unromantic. Her story of the machinations behind Nash's Nobel is fascinating and one of very few such accounts available in print (the CIA could learn a thing or two from the Nobel committees). This highly recommended book is indeed "a story about the mystery of the human mind, in three acts: genius, madness, reawakening." --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Nasar has written a notable biography of mathematical genius John Forbes Nash (b. 1928), a founder of game theory, a RAND Cold War strategist and winner of a 1994 Nobel Prize in economics. She charts his plunge into paranoid schizophrenia beginning at age 30 and his spontaneous recovery in the early 1990s after decades of torment. He attributes his remission to will power; he stopped taking antipsychotic drugs in 1970 but underwent a half-dozen involuntary hospitalizations. Born in West Virginia, the flamboyant mathematical wizard rubbed elbows at Princeton and MIT with Einstein, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener. He compartmentalized his secret personal life, shows Nasar, hiding his homosexual affairs with colleagues from his mistress, a nurse who bore him a son out of wedlock, while he also courted Alicia Larde, an MIT physics student whom he married in 1957. Their son, John, born in 1959, became a mathematician and suffers from episodic schizophrenia. Alicia divorced Nash in 1963, but they began living together again as a couple around 1970. Today Nash, whose mathematical contributions span cosmology, geometry, computer architecture and international trade, devotes himself to caring for his son. Nasar, an economics correspondent for the New York Times, is equally adept at probing the puzzle of schizophrenia and giving a nontechnical context for Nash's mathematical and scientific ideas.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
AMONG JOHN NASH'S EARLIEST MEMORIES is one in which, as a child of about two or three, he is listening to his maternal grandmother play the piano in the front parlor of the old Tazewell Street house, high on a breezy hill overlooking the city of Bluefield, West Virginia. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars His mother worried about his social life Aug. 8 2011
By Mira de Vries TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Hubris of Genius Aug. 14 2002
Format:Paperback
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Mind July 17 2004
Format:Audio Cassette
John Nash's story is truly inspirational. I could not stop the audio until I got to the end!
John Nash, a mathematical genius, had many ups and downs in his life, including a diagnosed mental illness and various social problems that made his life painful and complicated. His Nobel-prize winning work occurred while he was writing his dissertation at Princeton. He was not recognized until later in his life for his ground-breaking contribution to "game theory".
His story is one not only of his incredible gift, mental illness and remission, but really one of personal victory. In the end, he learns to live in harmony with those around him doing what he enjoyed most.
One of my most recent favorites!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An amazing piece of detective work July 13 2004
Format:Paperback
As I have said in the title, this book is an amazing piece of detective work about the life of Great John Nash. This is by far the work that beats the movie. If you have seen it, do not stop there - read the book, because it is TRUE! If you are interested into mathematics, into the Game theory - read it, not to learn the science, but to appreciate the scientist! However, I still give it 4 stars since the level of writing drops a little after exhilarating first few chapters. Nevertheless this is a great read!!!
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3.0 out of 5 stars a not-really-that-beautiful mathematician June 23 2004
Format:Paperback
(hey everyone else is making a pun with their titles so why not me?)
well this book has been well commented on so i'll try to keep this brief.
first, it is fact that many great mathematicians develop some sort of mental illness (it happened to kurt godel, georg cantor, and even issac newton). nash, then, is not really an unusual case.
what does make him interesting, then, is the fact that he had "reawakened" from his illness and continued to do math in his old age. such among mathematic circles is very rare.
and his math is indeed great. nash's ability to solve problems concerning manifolds and other topological spaces is still making waves in math today. the layman unfortunately, like nasar, doesn't appreciate this fully, which is a shame. i would have liked to get a mathematician's view on johnny's life.
but, as a pop bio, it's not too bad. i agree with other reviews that it contained too much minute detail, and her references to nash looking like a golden god were overstated and a bit offputting. i wouldn't be surprised if nasar was really in love with nash. (she might have dedicated her book to alicia to subdue any suspicions of that sort.)
in the end, though, we see the life of one of the greatest modern mathematicians, through triumph and tribulation, which was the ultimate goal of the book. i would recommend this book to some and not to others.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Livre passionnant!
Ce livre relate la vie de John Forbes Nash, Jr grand
mathématicien, prix Nobel. Mais il nous introduit dans
aussi dans un monde fascinant, le monde des grandes... Read more
Published on May 12 2011 by Danielle
5.0 out of 5 stars Complex Man-A Bio That Runs True
A while back I was glancing through one of my wife's magazines and found this article on John Nash. I read with interest and inexplicably began staring at one of the photos. Read more
Published on Oct. 21 2008 by Douglas P. Murphy
4.0 out of 5 stars A Curious Life, A Good Movie, and Sexy Mathematics
Like many others I only came to this biography through the 2001 Ron Howard movie starring Russell Crowe. Read more
Published on May 23 2004 by Christopher Nelson
4.0 out of 5 stars This biography is intriguing and an interesting read
The story of John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner, who recovered from schizophrenia after a 30 year bout with the disease. Read more
Published on April 30 2004 by J. Okamoto
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Mind Review
"A Beautiful Mind"
The author of "A Beautiful Mind," is Sylvia Nasar. This book is absolutely extraordinary as well as unbelievable. Read more
Published on April 27 2004 by luke johnson
4.0 out of 5 stars Genius and Madness
A Beautiful Mind has received much praise,and deservedly so.I don't think anyone could have written a better biography of this extraordinary mathematical genius ,who was lost to... Read more
Published on April 8 2004 by Georges Melki
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Book! Even Better Than the Movie!
This great biography describes the very bizarre genius from his days in a small West Virginia town, through his undergrad days in a very sooty, unhealthy Pittsburgh ,just after... Read more
Published on Feb. 12 2004 by Hans Castorp
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful Mind, Beautiful Math, and Very Fine Biography
I remember reading in night school John Rawls's A THEORY OF JUSTICE, which referenced one J.F. Nash's 1950's paper, and thought how I never heard about any subsequent work or about... Read more
Published on Dec 26 2003 by C. E Witteck
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful Mind, Beautiful Math, and Very Fine Biography
I remember reading in night school John Rawls's A THEORY OF JUSTICE, which referenced one J.F. Nash's 1950's paper, and thought how I never heard about any subsequent work or about... Read more
Published on Dec 26 2003 by C. E Witteck
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