Sylvia Nasar's biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., A Beautiful Mind, is a remarkable tale about one of the leading mathematicians of the 20th century. Nash is renowned for his contributions to both pure mathematics and to fields to which mathematics is applied. His work in game theory has become a cornerstone of the modern theory of rational human behavior, and his work in economics revolutionized the field, ultimately winning him the Nobel Prize.
Sylvia Nasar offers one of the literary surprises of the year, which should appeal to a wide audience. A Beautiful Mind recounts achievement and tragedy in a tale of compassion, redemption, and the ultimate triumph of the human intellect over adversity. It is also a fine piece of science writing. In her well-crafted and meticulously researched saga, Nasar depicts Nash's meteoric rise to one of the most eminent mathematicians of our time. He was brash, young, ambitious, and original, in both his professional and his private lives. He startled the mathematical establishment with a sequence of profound discoveries reached by very creative and highly unorthodox methods. Yet, there is a dark side to this tale of glittering youthful success. By the time he was 30, Nash began to display disturbing signs of a mental instability which rapidly led to a complete destruction of his life.
The author poignantly chronicles Nash's slide from eccentricity into madness diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. For 30 wasted years, he endured repeated hospitalizations with failed treatments. Although his name was prominent in scientific journals, Nash was clouded in obscurity. Many assumed him dead with only the cognoscenti aware of his existence. Miraculously, his family, friends, and colleagues who had staunchly stood by him observed that Nash, as though awakening from a deep and troubled sleep, began to emerge from his dementia. He began to manifest signs of heightened awareness and competence and to regain his former mental acuity. The chronicle of his continued recovery is perhaps as startling as the record of his scientific discoveries. A Beautiful Mind is a major contribution to modern intellectual history. It is also a moving biography of a mathematical giant which offers captivating insights into both genius and madness.
Dr. Fitzgibbon is professor of mathematics at the University of Houston.