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am 6. Juli 1998
In the first few chapters of this book you learn to dislike John Nash. His arrogance and insensitivity are definitely not endearing traits. When schizophrenia captures his mind your first reaction is to think bad Karma has caught up with him. But as the pages and the years go buy you become deeply saddened by this man's loss. It is gratifying that Princeton and its academic staff stood by Nash, and kindly let him wander about the Math department for almost thirty years. His ex wife is an heroic individual who took care of him even though divorced from him. Another tragedy is Nash's mentally ill son who was granted a PhD from Rutgers and who has been unable to do anything with it in the 13 years since. You are, however, overjoyed at John Nash's mental resurrection in the 1990s. A well written book. Scientists reading this book should note that unlike many science biographies this is not a book heavy with mathematical theorems. It's about a life.
I have one nitpicky complaint. The author spends a lot of time discussing the symptoms and treatment of schizophrenia. Yet when mental illness strikes other people in the book she uses trite, meaningless terms like "nervous breakdown" and "mental collapse". That's like referring to a physical ailment as "the vapors". Won't we ever bury such stupid terms?
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am 27. November 1998
Interesting book. However, the first word of the title is rather inappropriate. I don't see anything 'Beautiful' about Nash's mind nor his harrowing lifelong experiences. Most of his life was a state of crisis for those who worked with him or loved him. Nash, his family, and friends were, in fact, tragic victims of the power of the human mind when it malfunctions. The book is layed out such that the reader can see how people were able to cope and to grow from such a difficult tragedy. Alicia, his wife/ex-wife is a most fascinating individual. John Nash was a changed man after his recovery, with a much more grounded and rational personality than he ever had when he was at the height of his brilliance. The ending is bittersweet, and rather emoitional; the book certainly gets better the more that one reads into it. It certainly gave me a better understanding of grave mental illness and how that can alter one's intellect and destroy one's potential. What makes it more interesting is that the main characters are still alive and the story is not over yet. I wish Dr. Nash the best in his recovery.
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am 10. Juni 1999
Nasar spins a marvellous story of a true genius, a man for whom outstanding accomplishments were never enough.
Apparently Nash was a man who made breakthroughs simply because they were there to be made. He cared not if the world found them useful, only that others of his ilk found them intellectually impressive. Yet he has indelibly left his mark on his time and on those to follow. But that's not really the point of this book.
Nash also spent the best years of his life battling a horrendous illness that made him virtually unable to work. That's not the point either.
The point is that Nasar has managed to write the kind of biography one rarely sees but the world needs far more of. By placing Nash's work in the context of the man, his family, his friends, his peers, his time and his social environment the reader feels they progressively get to know the man, to feel a sense of connectedness with him.
Yet, the way one feels about Nash is not always positive, for like all of us there are aspects on Nash not to be admired. But the key is that Nasar allows one to feel something. Far to many biographies leave one feeling one understands the work, but not the individual. For me, that is the point - and the value of this book.
For those of a mathematical bent (as I must confess I am) the book is interesting. It must be - it outlines the life of one of the twentieth century's greats. But the real value of the book for me is the placing of the life in its context. For that Nasar should be congratulated.
It would make a worthy addition to the library of anyone with an interest in exploring the subject of what moves us to do what we do.
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am 24. Januar 1999
Sylvia Nasar did a great deal of research for her biography of John Nash. Unfortunately, she just typed her notes into her word processor and Simon & Schuster published it.
I cannot tell if this is the fault of Ms. Nasar or her (unacknowledged) editor who should have recommended that she mold all of her research into a narrative, instead of just throwing it at the reader.
After listening to talk shows in which the author described John Nash's fascinating life, it was a great disappointment to slog my way through what I expected to be a wonderful biography of a unique genius. I think that one would get more out of reading the New York Times profile of Nash, from which this book was extrapolated, or listening to the author's ad lib recollections than from trudging through this repetitive work.
If you must read a recent biography of a great mathematician, may I recommend Paul Hoffman's "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers." Hoffman's series of anecdotes paints a better description of a man than Nasar's use of thousands of redundant interview quotes.
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am 10. Juli 2000
A truly amazing biography that brings to light what no one truly saw in his lifetime... the amazing mind of mathematical genius John Forbes Nash, Jr. This in-depth account helps the non-genius understand what genius is while it enlightens the reader as to how someone can succumb to madness. Along the way, Sylvia Nasar offers the reader snapshots of the lives that surrounded Nash, some of the greatest minds of all-time that helped to shape the 20th century and the world we live in. You do NOT have to be a mathematician to appreciate this passionate biography.
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am 6. Mai 2000
The halls of Princeton university resonate with such names as Robert Dicke, Freeman Dyson, Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, John Archibald Wheeler, Hugh Everett, Marvin Minsky, Alan Turing, Ed Witten, John von Neumann, Albert Einstein, Walter Kaufmann and Thomas Mann. Yet another name which deserves to be mentioned in this prestigious pantheon is that of John Forbes Nash. This book tells his story.
Nash is (he is still living) a mathematical genius who received his doctorate from Princeton and then went on to teach at MIT. As a human being, Nash leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, unlike many other personages who have been endowed with a brilliant intellect, Nash was unable to refrain from engaging in megalomania. He was a pedantic Nietzschian elitist who was more than a little pompous & enjoyed talking down to people whom he knew were not his intellectual equal. Nash treated both the main women of his life with contempt and not surprisingy has not picked up too many close friends over the years.
He also lacked a respect for the sacred art of pedagogy. He was recognized by both his students and peers at MIT as being a very poor professor who did not really care about his students. He also pulled some rather silly pranks such as including Fermat's last thereom on his undergraduate's final exam.
His less than stellar character notwithstanding, however, what is not in dispute is his genius. He made several contributions to mathematics which are truly important. He solved what was known as the "embedding problem for manifolds" in geometry & also wrote extensively on Game Theory (for which he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994).
What makes Nash's story remarkable is that he also suffered from schizophrenia. He reportedly showed up at MIT one day & professed that aliens from outer space were sending him encrypted messages that only he could decipher - in the New York Times. He also declared himself emperor of Antartica & sought asylum from NATO. During his intermittent stays in mental hospitals he became friends with the poet Robert Lowell, who was himself a patient (suffering from manic-depression). Later, Nash quit his post at MIT and wandered the campus of his beloved Princeton like a lost zombie. He became known to the undergraduates as the "phantom of Fine Hall."
What caused Nash' mental illness is unclear. Genetics would seem to be a significant factor, given that one of his sons (who was himself a mathematical genius in his own right) also suffered from the disease - perhaps even more than Nash. Other contributing factors were likely his (failed) attempt to solve the Riemann hypothesis & his infatuation with the legendary John von Neumann.
This is a wonderfully well written book. It is an extraordinary story of an exceptional man who fell into the depths of madness & later emerged to win the Nobel Prize.
Nasar also offers a nice compass for the various enviroments Nash found himself in throughout the different stages of his life. Nasar provides a vivid background for each scene and siginificant person that Nash comes across. She also bequeaths detailed information on various institutions (such as the Institute for Advanced Study) of which I was not aware.
I would recommend this book for anyone who is interested in John Nash, the history of Princeton or the thin line which separates genius and madness. One will find within these pages the tale of a man who crossed that line many times.
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am 8. November 1999
For spirited comments on the general thread of this book about John Nash, our 1994 Nobel Laureate in economics, please read some of the excellent reviews following. This review speaks to the "extras" you get from "A Beautiful Mind" by Sylvia Nasar: (1) Rarely do we get such a detailed and gripping look at schizophrenia as it seizes and systematically debilitates its victim. Here the reader can watch bizarre behavior develop and, later, slowly fade away to what, incredibly, appears to be a happy return to health, a blessing almost never accorded schizophrenics. (2) Scenes at Carnegie Tech, Princeton, and MIT give the reader the chance to compare memories of his college days to what he sees happening to and around John Nash in these great institutitons. Also, the reader gets intriguing sketches of business life inside the RAND Corporation, a think tank devoted to the secret concerns of the Air Force. (3) We also see inside a private mental institution, and later (when the family's money was running low) inside a state mental institution -- yesteryear's dreaded "insane asylum" complete with electroshock equipment. So the reader closes the book knowing a great deal more of a variety of subjects than might be expected from the title. Sylvia Nasar documents the book throughout with "Notes" collected in 48 pages of 7-point type at the end of the book. Some are fascinating in their own right. One was Nash's autobiography, required by the Nobel committee. The reader may wish the whole work had been included as an appendix. Nasar has written an amazingly penetrating portrait of a difficult and complex man. If she some day is awarded a Nobel for literature, this reviewer will not object.
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am 19. Juni 2000
This book is not just for mathematicians or those in the field of hard sciences - but for anyone who wants to have some clarity on certain aspects of life itself. Sylvia Nasar manages to write about the life of John Forbes Nash, a mathematician, from his college years which began in 1948, to his years of maturity and ends the book in 1997. She tells a very important story that captures the organizational culture of math departments throughout colleges and universities across the country, homosexuality during the McCarthy era, mental illness and the recovery of mental illness, relationships and the importance of them, as well as mathematical theorems - how they developed and the use of them. This book sheds some light on why mathematicians set themselves apart from other disciplines. Her story does not only belong to Nash but to many other mathematicians whose story was similar. Read this book if you are interested in what contributes to scientist going "mad." It lends credence to the term the "zany professor."
Also, if you really pay attention, you can figure out how mathematical equations apply to everyday life...and how many decisions in the political and economic arena are not made unless the situation is applied to a mathematical equation. We are introduced to the game theory and how Nash modified the theory by introducing equilibrium points. All games do not have to end up with a winner and a loser, especially if cooperation is introduced, according to Nash.
The scientific jargon gets ever so boring as we read through several chapters on the military's dependence on academia in an effort to be competitive with Russia back in the 1950s and 1960's. The author introduces the reader to every mathematician Nash ever read about, worked with and admired. We are inundated with names and theorems that many readers will never encounter again unless a mathematician. Nasar is very wordy almost as though she has the inability to get to the point. The book is laced with trivial background information on people who were insignificant to the story Nasar is attempting to narrate.
While the book is easy to put down, it is also easy to pick up again. Something keeps drawing you to Nasar's written pages. By the time I got to the end of the first full paragraph on page 362, I wept. I wept because Nash was questioning whether it was okay for him to eat in the faculty cafeteria at Princeton....a place where he had eaten many times as an established mathematician, a place where he learned, taught others, and oftentimes held court. I wept for Nash and others like him....for the turmoil that a mental illness takes one through and how people react to those who are mentally imbalanced.
The most profound sentence in the whole book is on the front page in which Nasar quotes Nash, a mathematical genius, explaining why he thought aliens from outer space were giving him secret messages. Nash responds, "....the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously."
Read this book if you have the time. No rush.
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am 3. Oktober 1998
The author did a lot of research on her subject and with passion and the ability to generate interest and an ability to convay some idea of his mathematical contributions has done a good service both to Nash, his wife and those of us who had not even heard of Nash. There may have been too much emphasis on Nash's early sexual aberations which are likely more of an inmature response to feelings of lonlyness and affection. In any case it tends to detract from Nash and such emotionally charged descriptive behavier would have better been less emphasized. It would have been more interesting to learn of Nash's possible ADD. I also wonder if Nash experimented with drugs such as stimulents which may induce behavier such as Nash's. A lot of very talented mathematicians show signs of ADD early on. Along with that goes social inmaturity and impulsiveness. It is not true that mathematics is restricted to the young. More likely the young with less knowledge are more willing to work on abstractions and as one gains more experience he/she is more interested in specific topics. Liebnitz was over 25 when he began mathematics. Sylvester worked on mathematics into his late 80's. Finally one is left with a sympathetic view of Nash as must have been the case with the many that knew him. One hopes that he is happy and doing well now. One also hopes that this will not be that last work on this sort of subject by the author. Writing on less known people is very valuable. However, perhaps "Run away mind " would have been a better title.
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am 23. März 1999
A Beautiful Mind is truly a compassionate biography, if not the best, among the many I have read, certainly among the very best. Some years ago there was in The New York Times an article you wrote about John Nash. I saved it for I found it intriguing. Thus, when the opportunity came to have a copy of your book, I took it without second thoughts. It should be required reading for psychology courses. Those preparing to be teachers should be required to read it. There is so much in the book that intrigued me, and I shall read it again to absorb more. That John Nash intuitively determined answers to math problems, and then figured out the methods of getting there was enlightening, for this was true for me in geometry and in a doctoral-level statistics course. No one I knew did that. How very frustrating it must have been for John Nash when he could not perform his mathematical functions. What a tremendous tragedy, not alone for him and his family, but for all of us. That others are building on his work is gratifying. However, would it not be wonderful if he achieved another milestone. Thank you, Sylvia Nassar, for providing us with the gift of A Beautiful Mind. Sincerely, Sally Ann Vervaeke Helf
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