Truth can be Beautiful

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I have vivid undergraduate memories of John Nash.

I remember a thin, ghostly specter with raincoat and umbrella pacing the quiet hallways, or lying flat on his back on a bench outside the library, eyes fixed, chain smoking.

I had heard that the cryptic numerologico-political remarks on the blackboards were written by him, and that he was a famous mathematician who had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Several years later John Nash received the Nobel Prize in economics, and I, like many others, raced through Sylvia Nasar’s award-winning biography of his life. I was gripped by the improbable story of this driven, socially awkward intellectual who re-invented the subject of game theory, leading to his work on nuclear strategies at the top secret Rand Institute think tank, and a professorship at MIT.

While his professional life seemed a straight success, Nash’s personal life was chaotic, including confused sexual identity, an illegitimate child, and a difficult but faithful marriage. At 31, he suffered the sudden onset of paranoid schizophrenia, and for 35 years he was unable to work or think, harassed by Cold War hallucinations. He survived through the support of friends and his wife. Eventually, he began to recover and his work gained recognition, culminating with the economics Nobel Prize.

Nash’s Nobel Prize winning work was about human commerce. It began with a brief jewel-like work, a multifaceted, sparkling 7 page paper entitled “The Bargaining Problem”, an exploration of game theory. A following paper, “Equilibrium Points in n-Person Games” applied game theory to economics. Nash transformed the idealized model of two-person zero-sum games, in which one person’s loss is the other’s gain, to highly nuanced, real-life scenarios, where many players share and hide information, form coalitions and cartels, and in short, act as people do.

Laying waste to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand theory of an unseen force guiding any competitive market to a natural equilibrium, Nash constructed an analytic theory of economics in which personal interest and gain are possible; individual actions have worth and matter.

Nash’s story seemed ready-made for the big screen: a hubris-laden hero, a life lost and regained, creativity entwined with madness, redemption by the love of a good woman. Oscar, here we come!

So, I expected to love the movie, “A Beautiful Mind” but I didn’t. It’s a confusion of fact, fiction and fantasy, the most troubling of which is a suggestion of friendly paranoid delusions that helped, even inspired, Nash’s work, giving voice once more to the old chestnut that “madness equals genius” especially in mathematics. Even this could have been forgiven if not for a misleading postscript that implies that everything in the movie is true.

The real story is rife with poetry, irony, and metaphor. It could have, should have, fueled a masterpiece.

From Hanover New Hampshire, this is Dan Rockmore.

–Dan Rockmore is a Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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