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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
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
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
"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
— Phyllis Maguire
609-921-8500. Free. Thursday, September 19, 7 p.m.
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