Monday, 25 March 2013

A Beautiful Mind: Putting Chaos into Order

Journalist and economist Sylvia Nasar decided to write A Beautiful Mind: a biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, 1994 after an intriguing encounter with the professor at Princeton University in the early 1990s. The book came out in 1998. The same year it won the (US) National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Producer Brian Grazer thought that it was a good story to turn into a film and success proved him right. 

A Beautiful mind was released in the USA in December 2001 and was awarded the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Ron Howard), Best Adapted Screenplay (Akiva Goldsman) and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly). The film received much acclaim from critics worldwide although the script of Akiva Goldsman only loosely follows Sylvia Nasar’s (unauthorized) biography leaving out or even altering some important facts in the life of the real John Forbes Nash, Jr. in order to adjust them to taste and expectations of the audience. 

The story begins in 1947, when the young John Forbes Nash, Jr. (played by Russel Crowe) takes a scholarship for mathematics at Princeton University. He’s an arrogant and socially inept young man, but a genius with figures. His only friend is his roommate Charles Herman (played by Paul Bettany), a literature student and, as it turns out later, a hallucination. John Nash’s goal is to find a truly original idea that does his brilliancy justice and is worthwhile being published. For a long time he strives in vain for the right inspiration, but hanging out with fellow students the flash of genius hits him when a beautiful blonde comes into the bar with her friends and he realizes that if all of them went after the blonde none of them would leave with a girl that night. In the film this episode is how John Nash comes to work on the so-called ‘Nash Equilibrium’ in game theory that earns him a job at the MIT. 

In the 1950s John Nash meets the graduate student Alicia Larde (played by Jennifer Connelly) who fascinates him with her intellect and whom he marries in 1957. All the while John Nash continues working on game theory and makes great progress. Then he is approached by William Parcher (played by Ed Harris) from the CIA who brings him to the Pentagon to decipher Soviet codes hidden on the front pages of certain newspapers. This is when John Nash begins to feel pursued and to lose touch with reality. Eventually, he’s diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and it becomes clear that William Parcher, too, is only a hallucination. John Nash can no longer teach. Years of treatment and struggle for control over his mental state pass by with Alicia always standing by his side. 

Little by little John Nash learns to ignore his hallucinations, and when he feels ready, he approaches his old friend and rival Martin Hansen (played by Josh Lucas), who has meanwhile become head of the mathematics department at Princeton University, to be allowed to work in the library and to attend classes as a guest. He wanders about the campus, talks to nobody, pursues his studies and makes his calculations. At some point he has enough recovered to teach again. In the end, in 1994, John Forbes Nash, Jr. is awarded the Nobel Prize in economics together with Reinhard Selten and John C. Harsanyi. His colleagues at Princeton University honour him with a pen ceremony that has been invented, though. On the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm he never gave the represented speech thanking his wife -- who in reality had divorced him in 1963 and remarried him in 2001 --, either, because this isn’t the custom in the ceremony. 

All in all A Beautiful Mind is an interesting film about an interesting personality with a strong will who was accepted only thanks to his mathematical genius. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t show the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr. as it really was, with all its struggles and flaws, but at least it catches the man’s spirit. 


  1. The book and the movie were both very good. However, while reading the book, I thought how much more accessible it would be to readers if they edited out some of its excessive mathiness. It often felt like it was half textbook, half incredibly interesting character study.

    1. Unfortunately, I know only the film... and the summary of the book. However, it must be difficult to explain mathematical theories without the equations, so I can figure the effect of half a textbook.


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