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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the September 18, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Tracking John Nash

One of Princeton’s most illustrious chroniclers is

back in town. Sylvia Nasar — author of "A Beautiful Mind,"

the bestselling biography of Princeton mathematician John Nash —

will be giving a talk and signing books at the Princeton University

Store on Thursday, September 19.

Her latest book is "The Essential John Nash," which she co-edited

with Princeton math professor emeritus Harold W. Kuhn. The book collects

Nash’s original papers — with commentary — in one volume.

"One of the striking things about Nash is that he worked in entirely

different fields," says Nasar in a phone interview from her Princeton

office. Nash worked on game theory — for which he won the Nobel

Prize in Economics in 1994 — when he was a graduate student, but

went on to contribute to algebraic geometry, Riemannian manifolds,

and parabolic equations.

"The book is for graduate students and people in the disciplines

who want to read the originals," says Nasar. "People who know

Nash’s work in game theory now have the chance to read his work in

pure mathematics, while mathematicians can see the economic contributions

that were so influential."

Nasar’s first book, of course, made quite a splash. Published in 1998,

"A Beautiful Mind" won the National Book Award for biography,

was shortlisted for a Pulitzer, and became last year’s best picture

in Ron Howard’s film starring Russell Crowe as the anguished genius

diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Nasar was first drawn to Nash’s story in 1993 when, as an economics

reporter for the New York Times, she heard that he was being considered

for the Nobel Prize. Like everyone who studies economics — Nasar

got a master’s in economics from New York University, after graduating

with a degree in literature from Antioch College in 1970 — she

knew that the Nash equilibrium of mixed strategies for noncooperative

games had become an integral part of economic theory. "But I had

no idea that he was still alive," she says with emphasis. When

she learned that he had lived in obscurity for decades with mental

illness, she still didn’t write the story, considering it an invasion

of his privacy.

But that changed in 1994 when he shared the Nobel Prize with two other

game theorists. Nasar’s original 3,500-word Times article led to three

years of research, two of them spent here in Princeton, and her immensely

successful and memorably titled unauthorized biography.

While she was writing the book, Nash maintained "what he called

a position of Swiss neutrality," she says. "I talked to him

on a number of occasions and he didn’t prevent other people, including

family members, from speaking with me. But he wouldn’t give me a formal

interview."

In a complete reversal of the more typical biographer’s fate —

to be befriended by her subject, and then denounced or sued —

Nash and Nasar became friends after the book was published.

"He’s a very unusual person," she says. "Even in his relationship

with his biographer, he took a totally unique approach."

When asked why his story struck such a fascinated chord among the

public, Nasar points to several factors. "It’s a classic three-act

drama about genius, madness, and reawakening," she says, adding

that Nash’s tale of survival is also a love story — referring

to his wife, Alicia — with almost mythic redemptive tones.

The biography also lifted the veil on mental illness, and importantly

portrayed someone surviving that illness. And the public seems to

crave stories that illuminate lives touched by genius.

"Whether it’s Tom Stoppard’s `The Coast of Utopia,’ David Auburn’s

`Proof,’ or Michael Frayn’s `Copenhagen,’ there’s a real interest

in thinkers," says Nasar. "Many people who don’t have a personal

experience with mental illness are intrigued by that aspect of Nash’s

story."

Much was made of the fact that the film filtered out some unsavory

aspects of Nash’s life, like his shabby treatment of an illegitimate

child. Comments were also made about the imaginary characters written

into the film to convey Nash’s schiozophrenia. Nasar defends that

decision.

"I thought it was a brilliant decision by Ron Howard to not do

a straight bio-pic," she says, adding that the movie needed fictional

elements to duplicate the experience of someone who can’t distinguish

between reality and delusion.

"That left you with a sense of connection and empathy that no

piece of non-fiction could do," she says. "I felt that was

more faithful than doing a documentary."

The biography also presented an intriguing portrait of Princeton,

which in 1948 — when Nash arrived here as a graduate student in

mathematics — was the "center of the universe," as Nasar

wrote, for mathematicians. The book also conveyed the Princeton community’s

compassion during Nash’s lost years as "the Phantom of Fine Hall."

Nasar, who is 55, is back at the Institute for Advanced Study this

academic year on unpaid leave from Columbia School of Journalism,

where she teaches business journalism. Her current project: a book

called "Grand Pursuit" about leading 20th-century economic

thinkers. One chapter will focus on another Princeton mathematical

luminary, John von Neumann.

Aside from all the construction going on around the campus, "I

feel very much at home here," she says. "It’s great to be

back."

— Phyllis Maguire

Sylvia Nasar, Princeton U-Store, 36 University Place,

609-921-8500. Free. Thursday, September 19, 7 p.m.


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