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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?