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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there