A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nazar

John Nash was a respected academic who descended into paranoid schizophrenia. Years later he emerged from this state and earned a Nobel prize in economics.

Book cover: A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nazar
Book cover: A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nazar

Economists are an easy profession to poke fun at. There’s an old joke:

Q: What’s the definition of an economist?
A: Someone who didn’t have the personality to become an accountant.

Then there is the famous quote attributed to President Harry Truman:  “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say, ‘on the one hand…on the other’”.

So it’s perhaps something surprising that the biography of mathematician/economist John Nash was a best-seller and later became a very successful movie by Ron Howard starring Russell Crowe as the title character. I read the book, saw the movie, and then re-read the book. Both were excellent in their own way although the movie omits a number of darker anecdotes of his early life.

Nash was a professor who mysteriously spiraled into a severe state of paranoid schizophrenia. He was institutionalized for many years and subjected to the harsh medications and physical treatments that were customary at the time. He then miraculously emerged from the illness and once again became a productive member of the Princeton University faculty — owing much to his wife Alicia.

John Nash
John Nash

The Nobel prize for economics he received in 1994 was actually based on work he had done decades earlier. His conclusions came to be known as the “Nash equilibrium”. So far as I can understand it this principle was illustrated pretty accurately in the movie. In a scene at the bar, the student John Nash and his college buddies are sizing up girls from a distance. Here Nash explains that — as applied to this particular situation of optimizing outcomes — Adam Smith (perhaps the most famous and revered economist in history) was wrong. No false modesty here.

In spite of Nash’s recovery, there was ultimately a tragic ending as he and his wife were killed in an automobile accident in May 2015[⇒ Excerpt]

Personal connection: The brother of a friend of mine actually had Nash for a class at Princeton while slipping into his schizophrenic fog. According to this acquaintance, Nash was indeed a pretty unlikeable character during this time.