Books: None of it quite adds up

A Beautiful Mind

by Sylvia Nasar Faber pounds 17.99

Some time during the last 12 months, algebra became cooler than alcopops. Good Will Hunting made quadratic equations sexy, and Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem ensured that no dinner party was complete without a name-check for the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture. Sylvia Nasar's - a biography of the Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Nash - rides this Zeitgeisty tide.

Nash was born in Bluefield, West Virginia in 1928. A brilliant but unspeakably arrogant young man, he had reinvented game theory by the age of 21, and was subsequently recruited by RAND, the US government's top-secret Cold War think-tank. But by his thirties, he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, and his delusions rapidly overwhelmed his life. Abandoning legitimate research, he became absorbed in numerological calculations, chalking up his conclusions about "Krypto-Zionist conspiracies" on the blackboards of Princeton. "Mao Tse-tung's Bar Mitzvah was 13 years, 13 months and 13 days after Brezhnev's circumcision," he once announced.

He spent the next three decades decoding messages from aliens, which he believed were communicating with him via the pages of The New York Times. By 1995, he was all but forgotten by the academic establishment - though his early ideas continued to exert a powerful influence upon the work of economists and mathematicians. Then two remarkable events occurred - he was awarded a Nobel prize, and his schizophrenia went into remission. Today, he is back at work, lecturing on the international circuit and pursuing his research. He spends his spare time playing chess and watching repeats of Doctor Who.

Nasar's book offers a calculatingly attractive mixture of madness, genius and maths-for-bluffers. It gives the lay person a summary of some important theories, and so helps assuage that anxiety of ignorance on which books like Fermat's Last Theorem have depended for their success. But it also satisfies the gut suspicion that anyone who can understand partial differential relations must pay the price with some crippling emotional or social dysfunction. And dysfunctional is too tired a word to characterise the savage eccentricities in Nash's personality. Before his years of madness, Nash was so strange that even other mathematicians considered him odd. More than odd, in fact. Unremittingly obnoxious would be nearer the mark.

Nasar's attitude to this obnoxiousness is one of the central difficulties of her book. As she accumulates carefully footnoted anecdotes of his cruelty, selfishness and bombast, its title seems less and less efficacious. She details trivial matters like Nash's attempts to creep up on pigeons and kick them, and serious ones such as his efforts to evade responsibility for his first child and its mother.

Even in the chapter dealing with his life today, there seems to be plenty of boorishness left in his character. Nasar's sympathy for Nash is attractive and infectious, but it also encourages an equivocation that mars some of her insights into the relationship between his life and work.

For instance, she is wary of drawing conclusions about one of Nash's strongest character traits, his predilection for nasty pranks. An academic colleague, Martin Shubik, recalls that "Nash's idea of a joke was to unscrew the electric light bulb in the bathroom. There was a glass shade under the bulb, which he filled with water. Did he intend to electrocute me? I'm not sure that he didn't intend to." Perhaps he did. As a boy, Nash had tried to persuade his sister to sit in a rocking chair to which he had attached live electric wires.

Nasar insists on the separateness of Nash's life and work, offering the brilliance of the latter as compensation for the shabbiness of the former. However, her own evidence indicates that his contributions to game theory and his practical joking share a common theme: how do you get one over on the other guy? This one-upmanship seems to have extended to all areas of his life. Nash's first girlfriend complains about how he always wanted "something for nothing". And he clearly took delight in humiliating his students. "His ideas about the classroom had more to do with playing mind games than pedagogy," writes Nasar. But she doesn't want to pollute the purity of Nash's mathematical achievements by suggesting that they were an abstraction of his bullying. Or at least she doesn't want to be seen to be making the connection.

Perhaps for similar reasons, she employs a similar subtlety when dealing with her subject's sexuality and politics. She draws no conclusions about his participation in Cold War strategy - despite the disturbing fact that his contributions to game theory were formulated in the context of outwitting the Russians in a putative nuclear war. She is equally unjudgemental when describing how Nash would use mathematical arguments to justify his perversely right-wing opinions. (He once told a class of undergraduates that American citizens' voting rights should be made proportional to their income.) We are also told he believed that miscegenation would result in the "deterioration of the racial line". So did he have some more sinister eugenic opinions that Nasar does not want to divulge?

She is even more equivocal about his sexuality: she relates how he formed a series of "emotional attachments" to other male graduate students. Lloyd Shapley, a fellow mathematician with whom Nash was once intimate (and with whom he spent many evenings playing a logic game called "Fuck your Buddy") now denies that they were ever close friends.

Nasar details Nash's sexual relationships with women (the book is dedicated to his wife, Alicia Larde Nash), but she also devotes much attention to his dismissal from RAND, which followed his arrest on indecent-exposure charges in a gay cottage on Muscle Beach.

The word "bisexual" is conspicuous by its absence from her book. Is she vague out of consideration for Nash and his family? Impossible to say. But there are certainly absences and elisions in this biography, and a strong sense that Nasar has omitted several terms from the equation of Nash's life. Those with an algebraic turn of mind may, however, be able to calculate the missing values.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series