Book: A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind

Inspiring, invokes sympathy.
464 pages, ★★★

Q: What should we do with an overweight Hungarian?

Protagonist Johnny Nash is a ‘flamboyant’ and ‘mischievous’ mathematical genius. He invented Game Theory and the mathematical game ‘Hex’, won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994 and almost won a Fields Medal, too. A Beautiful Mind is a book in three parts: (1) the genius; (2) his illness; and (3) his remarkable recovery.

Nash was ‘ostracised’ and ‘teased’ in school. Some classmates described him as ’emotionless’ because he liked to be alone. Actually, Nash made strong friendships with a handful of people with whom he could really connect—mostly older, genius males. Most people could not relate to him—and vice versa.

He was extremely successful academically. He led a successful post-graduate career at Princeton and published papers on game theory and equilibrium theory. These were still areas of major interest to Nash by the end of the book.

However, Nash’s work on quantum theory began to deteriorate around page 221. Schizoid or bipolar symptoms became apparent. Nash would later blame “possibly overreaching and psychologically destabilising” efforts to resolve the contradictions in quantum theory for triggering his mental illness.

His condition deteriorated further on page 246 when he delivered what the audience described as a ‘horrible’, “nonsensical, lunatic” seminar on Reimann’s Hypothesis. Delusions of persecution led him to Europe where, against official advice, he attempted to renounce U.S. citizenship. Grandiose delusions led him to think of himself as a “great but secret religious figure” while he was in Rome (page 312), that he was “saving the world” (page 320), that newspapers were talking to him (page 322) and that he was constantly scared of annihilation (of himself and of the world; page 324). He used multiple identities when signing his letters—names from all over the world, historical figures, even animals—which represented the fragmentary nature of his mind. Undoubtedly, he was going through great suffering at this time, so he changed names and travelled the world to escape it.

Remarkably, Nash’s life made an almost magical upturn around page 334. His illness receded, he re-married the love of his life, and he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. Recovery from long-term schizophrenia is almost unheard of.

This story begs two questions for me. (1) What caused his schizophrenia? and (2) What made him recover?

(1) In my opinion, Nash’s behaviour can be explained entirely by his childhood, as predicted on page 38:

Johnny’s apparent sense of superiority, his standoffishness, and his occasional cruelty were ways of coping with uncertainty and loneliness. What he lost by his lack of genuine interaction with children his own age was a “lively sense, in reality, of his actual position in the human hierarchy” that prevents other children with more social contact from feeling unrealistically weak or unrealistically powerful. If he could not believe he was loveable, then feeling powerful was a good substitute. As long as we could be successful, his self-esteem would remain intact.

In other words, this book suggests that same factors that led him to be so successful also could have contributed to his illness. It makes sense, too—few geniuses are completely sane.

(2) As for what made him recover, the book gives no explicit answers. One possibility is that Nash’s reassurance that he was neither young enough to be drafted into the Army nor required to do defence-related research persuaded him to return from Europe to America and continue his life there. Falling in love (with Alicia) was either a cause or a result of his recovery, or maybe both, but the book gives no clear answers here, either. Either way, his story is a remarkable and inspiring one.

There are also some math problems in this book to think about. Try these:

Two cyclists, 20 miles apart, start at the same instant and ride towards each other along a straight road at a speed of 10 miles per hour. At the same instant, a fly on the forehead of one of the riders starts to fly at 15 miles per hour toward the other rider, alights on his forehead, and the immediately flies back to the first rider. The fly travels back and forth over the continuously-decreasing distance between the two riders until the two riders meet. How far has the fly flown when all its journeys are added together?

And another one:

THE JEEP PROBLEM: There are n units of fuel stored at a fixed base. The jeep can carry at most 1 unit of fuel at any time, and can travel 1 unit of distance on 1 unit of fuel (the jeep’s fuel consumption is assumed to be constant). At any point in a trip the jeep may leave any amount of fuel that it is carrying at a fuel dump, or may collect any amount of fuel that was left at a fuel dump on a previous trip, as long as its fuel load never exceeds 1 unit. The jeep must return to the base at the end of every trip.

There are ‘easy’ and ‘long-winded’ ways of calculating each of these problems.

I recommend this succinct, clearly-written book for anyone inspired by genius or inspired by stories of miraculous recovery★★★

P.S. I think The answer to the riddle at the top is, “Make him go to Hungary/too hungry”.

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