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05 March 2003 @ 06:50 am
Thoughts upon finishing "A Beautiful Mind"  
"By keeping a list of quotations, I often hope to encompass some measure of the world's ambient wisdom, knowledge, and grace. And it is chiefly by this method that I have learned what makes a body of work brilliant - it is the inability to quote it as something pithy, a nebulous quality of the work existing as a loving organism on a plane separate from our own. While a single quotation may have the inherent quality of a heavily distilled liquor, the longer work must be remembered for the power it has over the quotation - in that the longer work is more difficult to quote verbatim, transcribe, or recall to another for the purposes of enlightenment or one-up-man-ship.

And it is the great work that circumvents this difficulty, because it pushes past the "threshold of attention" that the un-enlightened naturally projects. It needs to be absorbed, and as the reader develops the need to absorb it, the work develops the need to tell the reader everything that it possesses. This absorption is like an unused muscle, developing into full recall of its former ability, as the keeper of the muscle remembers its utility flowing back into memory. That the work can do so without the artifice of the body or the corporeal realm is considerable in itself, seeing as how the work possesses only the soul it was given by its creator. And yet the creator has also imbued the work with a passionate grace, an artfulness of design, and an economy of sensibility. That is to be the mark of greatness - the memetic quality of the story that must be told and retold, because to withold the story itself is a sin unto the heavens themselves."

These were the thoughts that came to me as I finished A Beautiful Mind, a work which is uplifting by virtue of following everything Aristotle ever taught us about catharsis. The story of John Nash, as recalled in this case (and not the movie, which is factually different on too many counts), is about man alone with his thoughts. It is a frightening story of discovery, rebellion, and a trip into the depths of hell (paranoid schizophrenia) that few people have ever survived - and yet Nash is among them. To attain notoriety for his work, even after a crippling thirty-year bout with schizophrenia, is phenomenal. In its finest hour, it is a fable of redemption.

Since most of you will probably not get a chance to read it, this is what really happened to John Nash - He is among the most brilliant mathematicians of the twentieth century. What is arguably his least important mathematical achievement, his work on game theory (the Nash equilibrium), would win him the Nobel prize. Since game theory (the mathematical study of rational behavior among participants in competitive and non-competitive games) had become a burgeoning with the publication in 1944 of von Neumann's work, The Theory of Economic Games and Behavior, Nash's equilibrium flew in the face of everything von Neumann had said about non-competitive behavior - Nash's equilibrium, in point of fact, should not be possible.
Today, it is this equilibrium that has enabled economists (most notably, as I can tell) to develop an auction system for channel spectrum allocation (TV and radio channels) and rules for anti-monopoly legislation. It is a cornerstone of modern economic theory.

And in his day, Nash was also an arrogant son of a bitch - at least this part the movie gets right. Most of his early work in mathematics (his two crowning achievements), would be completed because his "betters" believed that they were either entirely wrong, couldn't be done, or both. Nash was ellitical in his attacks on open problems - his method was always the untried method, the "Nash method". He abhorred reading previous mathematical work, insisting that he approach a problem from his own first principles. And he was an enormous cowboy about knowing when he was right - even if he couldn't prove it.

He was very often alone, and alienated from his peers - mostly because of his own behavior.

Nash would also go on to discover a ground-breaking theorem on manifold embedding, which would change the face of analytic topology forever. While less applied in its results, Nash's embedding theorem is, by far, the most amazing of his mathematical achievements, and the paper he wrote for it required an additional referee because of its non-standard approach.

It was in his work on the Riemann Hypothesis (a Holy Grail of modern mathematics, akin to Fermat's Last Theorem or the Goldbach Conjecture in scope and depth) that would eventually lead to his mental break-down. While genetically dispossessed for schizophrenia, neither genetics nor psychology had advanced to a point where it could do anything but institutionalize him when his symptoms came full circle - schizophrenia was considered a wholly crippling, degenerative disease. He would later go into complete remission in his 70's.

His schizophrenia was composed entirely of plots against him by the draft board, faculty, world governments, and Zionist Jews (due mostly to a walking delusion he routinely suffered involving himself as a Palestinian rebel, and the largely Jewish faculty of MIT, where he was a professor when his schizophrenia became crippling). He suffered from bouts of megalomania, proclaming himself the "Emperor of Antarctica" and formulating various plans against him. He believed that aliens were coding messages for him in the New York Times that only he could read - and while he spent time at the Rand institute (a DoD research firm born of the Cold War), Nash has never published any results in cryptography, or displayed any particular aptitude for cryptanalysis. (unlike what the movie would have you believe - nor did he have delusions of three different people who followed him throughout his life). His interactions with his delusions consisted entirely of voices and interpreting his environment.

He fled to Europe and attempted to become a "citizen of the world," fearing a draft for the Vietnam war - despite the fact that he was in his late twenties, and MIT carried enough political clout to keep him from being drafted. He attempted to abdicate his US citizenship at consulates in Switzerland, France, and Sweden - and when nobody allowed him to renounce his citizenship, he simply destroyed his passport. It was then that French authorities (with the approval of his family) had him deported to the US for psychiatric treatment.

Nash was never recorded as having undergone electro-shock therapy - although he was frequently administered Thorazine and insulin coma therapy. When he was discharged, he would often stop taking his medication and become delusional again. Ironically, Nash most likely avoided lasting damage to his motor skills and memory by avoiding the Thorazine on a regular basis, even though it was a massive problem at the time.

In the end, Nash's mathematical friends help him recover over a period of years, by offering him research positions and fellowships so that he can make ends meet. While Nash's wife, Alicia, was instrumental to his recovery, she stood by his side less than the movie would have you believe - she divorced him after his second(?) hospitalization. Nash's mother was more instrumental, by any estimation.

Nash fathered two children, with two different women - one whom he publicly adored (Alicia) and the other of whom he would rarely speak (Martha). He refused Martha child-support payments and marriage, although he often visited the child and was a model father for some time. And in his 20's, Nash was entirely homosexual - a difficult lifestyle to bear in any time, but especially difficult in the McCarthy era of the 50's. It was also his fear of being persecuted for what he called his "three special friendships" that lead to his mental collapse. (Nash's relations with men had begun only a little before Alan Turing, one of the world's greatest computer scientists and cryptanalysts, committed suicide after being stripped of his war decorations and forced to undergo hormone therapy for being a homosexual - a fact that was never far from Nash's mind)

But we all know the happy ending - and oddly enough, the real-world ending is about as happy as the movie ending, in most respects. Both of Nash's children have developed schizophrenia, but modern medication has helped them combat many of their symptoms. Nash's work in the computer labs has served as a sort of occupational therapy for him, and he continues his math work in attempting to model the Big Bang in a "universe that doesn't expand."

Well, it's very late/early, and now that I realize how much I've actually written in so short (long) a time, I'd better take another nap. But this was a very good experience for me. And since I didn't mention, Sylvia Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind. Read it sometime if you want to - I thought it was worth reading once. It's just such a great story.