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A BEAUTIFUL MIND by Sylvia Nasar

A BEAUTIFUL MIND

By Sylvia Nasar

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-81906-6
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

A biography about a mathematical genius who suffered from schizophrenia, miraculously recovered, and later received the Nobel Prize in 1994. Nasar, an economics correspondent for the New York Times, opens her book with the spectral image of John Forbes Nash Jr., who haunted the Princeton University campus where he had once been a promising graduate student. Nash, the son of conservative southern parents, rose rapidly through the ranks of equally brilliant mathematicians during the 1950s. Then, at the age of 31 and at the height of his career, Nash experienced the first of many breakdowns and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nasar attempts to write an ambitious biography. It is, on one level, an in-depth look at this mysterious figure and his milieu and, on another level, a meditation on the nature of genius and madness. On the first level, Nasar succeeds, providing a sense of the rarefied and competitive atmosphere of mathematics departments in the nation’s leading universities during the height of the Cold War. The peripheral characters of the book are vividly drawn, and episodes in Nash’s life are painted with an extraordinary attention to detail. She also presents advanced mathematical theories in an accessible and palatable way. However, her efforts to get at the heart of Nash’s disease fall short. A great deal of speculation is made about his early childhood, his homosexual liaisons, and his arrest for solicitation in this pre-Stonewall era. And even more is made of his bizarre and generally antisocial behavior before the breakdown. By the time Nasar reaches Nash’s first psychotic episode, the reader is struck, not by his genius, but by his maladjusted behavior. By the end of the book, Nash remains as much of an enigma as he was before. Impressively researched and detailed, but still fails to shed much light on the mysteries of genius and insanity.